Tess shivers slightly. It is cold inside, although she can see the harsh glare of the July sun through the cracks in the old wooden door. The books lie in neatly labeled rows, the tiny words sheeted in white paper under glass cases, as structured as a cemetery. The ones 400 years or older are under special lights.
In this room there is nothing but books and old furniture. Yet Tess feels, more than sees, green. Grass under gently falling rain, and a jade bangle glistening on the slender arm outstretched to catch a drop. She has to close her eyes until the vision disappears. When she forces herself to reopen her eyes, she sees rosewood chairs inlaid with marble and heavy low tables. She glances up at the heavy wooden beams on the ceiling, her eyes drop to cement floors. She breathes her relief.
Life in China, as a trailing spouse, is driving Tess mad.
She feels unmoored from all the realities of her life as Tess; the job at the bank in Houston, the weekend barbeques with friends, the salon where they know exactly how to highlight long blond hair…she wants all these certainties back. Instead, she is thousands of miles and many flights away from home, with all the time in the world to have visions that creep up on her unexpectedly, but never during the rare occasions when Ian is actually with her. The visions occur with a frequency that makes her fear her own company. In China, despite the housekeeper and the gardener and the driver always hovering by her side, solitude is the only thing that speaks her language.
These visions have come to her more frequently lately, and are turning less benign, swooping down on feathery ash-grey wings and obliterating all else but a shadowiness. She could enter a shop as innocuous as a Family Mart, touch a banana on the windowsill still warm from the sun, and it would come over her, that sense of being elsewhere, trapped in the wrong place. The banana would feel real, as would the shaft of sunlight, but she would be in another room, a greener place.
Tess Skypes her therapist in Houston once a week, sees his black ponytail on the screen swinging as he says, yes, yes, its only happening because you are in China, uhm, suddenly, from a financial analyst to housewife, and clearly, it seems, like, you and Ian are having issues about all of this and uhm, you feel trapped…At the end of these sessions, Tess feels patronized.
Initially, she enjoyed being the wide-eyed tourist. She visited the wet markets with live bullfrogs and eels swimming in murky pails. She trawled night markets with fake designer bags on sale, ate spicy crawfish grilled on the roadside. She rode on motorized rickshaws, took slow boats through ancient water-towns, and learnt to haggle over a few dollars until she felt that the only phrase she had really mastered was Tài guì le! Too expensive!
Tess now looks around this ancient Tianyige library in Ningbo. The building reminds her again why China had sounded so right. Being stuck in the same job in Houston for eight years, with the sheer predictability of her life and her infertility wearing her down, China had been a perfect escape. She was beginning to think about adoption (she had even gone to a couple of church meetings about adopting Chinese babies), but then the China position was offered to Ian and she saw herself in a mansion exactly like this one, with sloping roofs and dragon carvings and a red door, holding an unwanted Chinese girl in her arms. Someone to call her Mumma. China had seemed so full of possibilities, for a short jaunt of course. Ian had been born in England, but now neither one of them wanted to leave Houston forever.
She cannot remember exactly when the visions started – perhaps after the sixth month in China?—but now Tess feels she has to leave the house everyday to escape her inner eye. Ian, still preoccupied with his new job, is hardly home. He thinks she is exploring new places and having adventures. He tells her how happy it makes him to be able to give her a life of such unbridled luxury: the cook, the driver, the gardener, all at her service so she can live like his grandmother did, like the memsahibs in colonial India.
There is the groan of old hinges as an old woman comes through the doorway, carefully loping one foot over the raised wooden bar. Tess turns to see the woman cradling a baby, perhaps eight months old, a little girl with a fountain of black hair on top of her head, secured by a band of tiny pink roses. The dress on the child also has roses, dark red ones, with long green stems intertwined. The child has cheeks reddened by the heat, and her skin glows under the slight sheen of sweat. Tess holds her breath.
It is becoming difficult for her to look at a Chinese baby without wanting to snatch the child. She still has to work on Ian. Ian, who is so sure about not wanting more changes in his life right now, no child, no puppy, nothing new in this country to complicate it any further he says. He tries to explain that he is struggling with the language and how hard it is so hard to supervise people who say yes when they mean no.
The rift in their marriage is wide: he travels so often on business that they now have sex once a month, if at all; she feels too gauche in the company of the women he works with (the ones who talk about the value of the rial and rappelling with equal panache). Then there is the matter of those Facebook pictures, posted by a friend of a friend, of Ian in a karaoke lounge while a woman with a waist as wide as Tess’ thigh pours him a drink. Sitting on his lap. Tess won’t ask him about the pictures. She downloaded the pictures and examined them very closely, the pixels blurry when zoomed, but she saw nothing really incriminating. Briefly, she had wondered what she would do if there was infidelity, but the thought seemed too absurd. Ian is so ethical.
The old woman and the girl leave the building. Tess follows them outside. She finds herself on the banks of the Moon Lake as she walks behind them to the next building, the sloping roof casting moving shadows on unstill waters. In the distance, there is a man rowing desultorily in the heat. His hat frames his face so completely that he and the boat seem like calligraphic icons on the painted water.
The woman and the child disappear into a building. Tess ducks into the next doorway and finds herself inside an immense hall, the stones on the floor shaped like mahjong tiles in white and red and black. A bronze sculpture of men sitting around a square table and shuffling dice takes up most of the room, then there are rows of tiles on display, made of ivory and bamboo and wood and stone, large and small.
There is the sharp wail of the child and Tess peeps through the doorway. The old woman has stopped at the bridal sedan at the end of the hall and is bouncing the child gently. The wailing child reaches for the gilt-edged wood, and Tess sees a long glint of gold. Then, gradually, the room transforms into a wedding scene, with a richly decorated woman seated within the sedan, the silk brocade on her body flashing gold and red with her slightest movement. Tess hears distant drumbeats and smells the incense smoke. She sees green grass, as green as the jade bangle on the bridal arm.
Tess feels the walls close in on her. Her head begins to pound as she closes her eyes. Water. She needs water. All this sun is leaving her dehydrated. She looks around wildly.
And there, in that alcove of a garden behind the brass mahjong men, in a cool green oasis that seems like a mirage, is a small shop with familiar blue and white stripes. There is a large icebox at the entrance, decorated with jaunty pictures of ice cream cones.
No one is inside the shop. Tess halloos into the interior briefly before opening the sliding door of the icebox and extracting a bottle of water, gulping it thirstily. Then she shouts again, “Hello? Anyone here?”
Behind her, there is a brief whirring sound. “Hello. How-do-you-do? Hello?” squawks a voice from inside.
Tess is startled. She steps over the raised edge of the door into a tiny souvenir shop, the walls stacked with dusty paper fans and red lanterns, and some stone carvings near the ceiling. The only light is streaming through the open door. In the middle of the cramped space is a black bird, with an intense orange beak. It flutters around its wooden cage.
“Hello!” says the bird, “how-do-you-do?”
“Hello!” Tess stops herself, embarrassed to be talking to a bird.
The bird hops twice until it is as close to her as it can get within the flimsy cage. “Come!” it shrieks, “Come here.”
Tess smiles at this ridiculous bird, but there is something unsettling about the way the bird has its head cocked completely to one side. As if its neck is broken. The glassy eyes gleam in the gloom and Tess takes a step back.
Then she hears a noise and swings around to see the old grandmother with the baby, but it is too late, the woman slams the door firmly in her face. Tess rattles the wooden door only to hear the click of a lock being turned. Over the door, some ancient chains clink in frustration as she pummels the door. Tess screams her outrage, but no one comes, and the bird continues to look at her with that unblinking eye. Tess pounds at the door, yelling Help, but there is only silence on the other side.
Then she hears the sound of rain, a soft pitter-patter on the zinc roof.
Tess sinks to the floor, scrambling inside her handbag with trembling fingers. She locates her cellphone, scrolls to Ian’s picture and waits for the familiar ring, followed by his voice. There is nothing. She tries again and again. There is no signal at all.
There is no point in screaming; there is only the bird to hear. That black bird, whose beak glows fiery in this complete darkness and who is saying “Come” as if it were an order.
Tess feels her head spin out of control. The room starts to expand into a wavering and changing landscape. Then she feels the first drops of rain on her hand. She looks down to an arm that is not hers, the skin smooth and pale, wearing a perfect jade bangle glistening with raindrops.
She hears the sharp tinkle of bone china and smells the wet grass odor of freshly brewed green tea. She will not open her eyes. If she keeps her eyes closed this vision will disappear and she will reappear in the shop…or at home. The visions always go away.
“Mother”, says a young voice, petulant. “We have been waiting for you to come for a very long time.”
Tess can hear mahjong tiles being shuffled. She feels the four seasons, the four directions, numbers and characters and all the certainties of her own world tumbling and reshuffling into a new order. She feels the dragon’s breath and the caress of flowers. She slumps down on the vacant chair and opens her eyes to a vision of emerald green.
Dipika Mukherjee is a writer and sociolinguist. Her debut novel, Thunder Demons (Gyaana 2011), was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. She also won the Platform Flash Fiction competition in April 2009. She has edited two anthologies of Southeast Asian short stories: Silverfish New Writing 6 (2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (2002) and her first poetry chapbook, The Palimpsest of Exile, was published by Rubicon Press in 2009. Her short stories and poems have appeared in publications around the world and have been widely anthologized. She is a Contributing Editor to Jaggery (A Southasian Diasporic Arts and Literature Journal) and curates an Asian/American Reading Series for the Literary Guild, Chicago. She lives in Chicago and teaches at Northwestern University.