“Auntie, are you ready to come home with us?”
Li Jing looks up from the knot of lavender yarn in her hands, knitting needles ceasing their silvery chatter. The old woman smiles, head cocked. There is something subtly cat-like about the motion, a smoothness that belies the lines time has combed into her round face, a light that burns where life has waned.
“I’m sorry?” Li Jing says, voice firmer than one would expect. She fumbles for her hearing aid, finds it in a graveyard of yellowed books and colored fabrics. “What did you say?”
“We want you to live with us, Auntie. So we can take care of you. Make sure you have everything you ever want.”
The guest is a woman, too young by Li Jing’s count, the planes of her cinnamon face virginal, unscarred by wrinkles. She speaks both too loudly and too slowly, Li Jing thinks as she counts the faults in her visitor’s diction. Where consonants should exist, there are clumsy substitutes, ‘d’s where ‘th’s should hold vigil. Li Jing does not correct her, even though the gracelessness appalls. The fugue of youth is trouble enough, she reasons.
“Live with you?” Li Jing says, abrupt, when her thoughts empty enough to allow space for the present. “But this is my home. And — “
“It’s the best solution. And we’ve discussed it for weeks already, talked it over with the whole family.”
The gentleness bites chunks from Li Jing’s patience. It’s a familiar softness, a delicacy of speech reserved only for the invalid or the very young, a lilt that declares its recipient incapable. Arrogance, Li Jing thinks, but again says nothing.
The younger woman, barely a larva of a thing, lowers to her knees, hands piled over Li Jing’s own. “Your husband–we don’t want you to be alone when he — you know.”
Li Jing looks to where her husband lies snoring, already more monument than man, a pleasing arrangement of dark oak and book titles, elegant calligraphy travelling his skin like a road map. Li Jing allows herself a melancholy smile. The ache of loss-to-come is immutable, enormous. But there is pride, too.
In the armoire beside the marital bed sleeps a chronology of her husband’s metamorphosis: scans inventorizing the tiling on the walls of his heart, the stairwells budding in his arteries. For all of the hurt it conjures, Li Jing thinks his metamorphosis beautiful, too.
Before the old woman can structure an answer, the younger unfolds in a waterfall rush of dark, gleaming hair and mournful noises, fist balled against her chest. “Zhang Wei! Where are you? I can’t. I can’t — it’s too much. You talk to her.”
A muscular silhouette obstructs through the doorway, sunlight-limned, statuesque. Shadow gives way to intelligent eyes, a jaw softened by prosperity, and shoulders mausoleum-broad.
“Ah Ma,” Zhang Wei declares as he cuts through the space between them with long strides. He ignores the younger woman. “How are you doing?”
Li Jing raps his arm with her knuckles, a blow too light to offend, but too sharp to ignore. “No need for such wasteful courtesy. I already told you that I’m not leaving your Ah Kong here alone.”
Zhang Wei does not flinch from the assault, only squeezes his features into a mask of repentance. “Sorry, Ah Ma. I know how you feel about this, but you have to trust us. We only have your best interests at heart. We want to move both of you somewhere else, somewhere you can be cared for. I—”
Li Jing interrupts, prim. “We’re fine here. A thaumatotect came last week to check on your grandfather. He says it’s natural for paintings to hurt a little, and the pain should clear once his ribs have adjusted to them. There’s no need for anyone to fuss over us.”
Her grandson and his companion exchange glances like rats in conspiracy. Li Jing’s mouth thickens into a moue. Zhang Wei is the first to slip into a language Li Jing does not recognize, a bubbling of vowels. His woman — girlfriend? Wife? Dalliance? Li Jing recalls only the flippancy of their relationship — responds in kind, her words accompanied by a flicker-dance of small, elegant hands.
It takes heartbeats for Li Jing’s presence to rot into the background, her presence collateral to their fevered conversation. But the old woman is unruffled. Relieved, even. Dialogue never held the same glitter for her as it did for others. She clambers free of her chair and the two do not notice.
Wordless, Li Jing pads to where her husband slumbers. She touches the back of her fingers to his forehead. His skin is cool, rough with a dewing of feldspar. Li Jing’s brows clump. She had expected timber, not stone.
“I don’t think you understand how much good this will do, or what this means for you both.” Zhang Wei’s voice sounds against her musings, deep as the church bell’s eulogy. “We’re not trying to separate you, if that’s what you’re worried about. You’ll be able to visit Ah Kong anytime you wish.”
“Yes, Auntie!” the girl supplies, her voice like glass bells, bright and brittle. “You’ll even be able to pick out his nurse, if you like. And his meals. You won’t have to worry about visiting hours. They’ll have a cot for you. And the rest of the time, you’ll be taken care of by your loving children.”
Li Jing loses her words in a thunder of exasperation. “You don’t understand. He doesn’t want that. I don’t want that. We promised we’ll take care of each other. Always.”
Zhang Wei smiles, cloyingly sympathetic, head dipped in apology. “How will you take care of each other like this? He’s so old, Ah Ma. And so are you. He doesn’t know what he wants. You both — “
The two swap knowing expressions, while Li Jing stares, lips taut with unhappiness.
“What I meant to say is that we’re worried that you might be a little confused,” Zhang Wei continues, spiderweb-soft. “I only want the best for you, Ah Ma.”
Li Jing thins her lips. “What’s best for me is staying with your grandfather.”
“I — All right. I understand. But, hear me out –“
She recognizes argument in the bend of their spines, the tilt of their mouths. Dissatisfaction kindles in her breast but Li Jing does not give voice to it. She knows from experience they won’t relent until she is subdued. So Li Jing nods meekly instead, dispenses ‘maybes’ with shrugs, hoping against reason that indecision will outlast her grandchildren’s persistence. She sighs as they close in on her, allowing the tide of their words to wash over her like foam on a distant shore, carrying away talk of relocation, complex treatments, and futures she stores no interest in.
Li Jing is unique. Even from infancy, it was clear her skin would never be mantled with marble, and that her eyes would never be replaced by glass, her bones wood. At fifteen, no signage inked itself on her flesh, as it did others’, no portent of architectural occupation.
It complicated her relationships, of course. By the time Li Jing was wise enough to court partnership, city-sickness had become pandemic, so widespread that humanity was forced to leaven it into normalcy. One by one, proponents mushroomed from the carcass of fear, oozing grand ideas: why was this disease so terrible? Did it not provide a concrete immortality?
Consequently, few became willing to stomach a lover whose lifespan could be measured in decades. Death was never easy, but it was infinitely harder when you knew you would never walk the halls of your beloved, would never laze on their moon-drenched balconies.
Li Jing consumed their prejudices without complaint and used the dearth of companionship to build herself other loves: literature, mathematics, the reading of stars, the sleek alley cats that haunted the shadows behind her home. Months became years. In that time, loneliness grew into so much of a cherished companion that Li Jing almost chose the quiet over her husband-to-be.
She was forty when she met round-faced Zhang Yong, who wore the names of her favorite books on his sandstone-pale arms. Forty, and almost too wise to risk her heart. But Zhang Yong had gentle hands, a gentle smile and when he laughed, his voice was like a rustle of pages. Li Jing did not love him immediately. Instead, she learned to do so in increments, brick by brick, until she built her heart a new home.
They married four years after their first encounter, with the discretion that Li Jing that was so enamored of. And for a small eternity, they were happy.
“Li Jing?” Her husband’s voice is roughened by sleep and the creak of new hinges. “What time is it?”
“Late.” She glances up from her book and dog-ears the page, expression papered with concern. “You missed dinner.”
“I’m sorry.” His contrition makes her ache, its child-like earnestness evoking a pang for when they spoke without needing to keep one eye on caution. “It’s just –“
“I know,” says Li Jing, rising to secure an arm around his side, a hand around his wrist. Together, they lift him, a feat that scrapes their breath into tatters. In recent months, Zhang Yong has grown ponderous, his skeleton weighed with concrete.
But they persevere. Slowly, they migrate to Zhang Yong’s new dining space — a flip-table bolted to the wall beside an overstuffed red chair — and deposit him there. Before she moves to retrieve his meal, Li Jing presses her mouth against her husband’s cheek, impulse-quick, drinking in the skin’s faint warmth. She is possessive of his heat these days, knowing it’ll be gone soon, payment for cold glass and teak, passionless metals.
“So, Zhang Wei came over with his lady friend today –” Li Jing keeps the cadence of her voice breezy, syllables dancing between troubles, too light to be caught between teeth.
“Wai Sing’s second son.” Li Jing says, patient. Personal experience has made her accustomed to the fashion with which age makes sieves out of a person’s mind, memory hissing from the gaps like stardust through the slats of dawn. “The one who peed in his pants until he was eight. He grew up very tall.”
She ladles stew into a bowl, ornaments it with sprig of parsley before picking out a quartet of soft, white buns. Feeling wicked, Li Jing appends chocolate pudding to the arrangement. Why not? she thinks savagely. He only has such a short time left.
“He was the one with stained glass eyes?”
Li Jing shakes her head. “No. That was his brother, Zhang Long.”
“Zhang Long.” Her husband repeats, cautious. “Do I — do we have — ?”
“I can check.” Gently, she deposits his dinner on the table, before molding fingers to the gaunt architecture of his face, skin to still-human skin. Li Jing breathes deep.
This is their secret. As though to compensate for the immeasurable emptiness that is to come, the thousand-strong ways her heart will break on routines denied a partner, serendipity provisioned Li Jing with a bizarre gift.
In the beginning, the gift manifested as mere instinct, an aptitude for predicting alterations in her husband’s biology. Over the months, it coalesced into a tool, an ability to edit the topography of his disease.
Though they had initially hoped otherwise, hers was an imperfect talent. Li Jing could not bleach the sickness from him, could only mold its trajectory. With the pragmatism of the old, the two decided they would not despair but would turn disaster into providence. Brick by brick, they would build Zhang Yong, until he could provide for Li Jing in death as he did in life.
“This will sting,” Li Jing warns, the words hatched from habit rather than intent.
Magic stirs in her lungs, motes of flame. She holds them till they become needle points, surgical-sharp, before exhaling. In her mind’s eye, Li Jing sees them perforate Zhang Yong’s skin, tunneling into vein and sinew.
Zhang Yong hisses.
“It’s there in your rib,” Li Jing confirms, walking her fingers from his chin to throat, throat to chest. Her sorcery follows like a puppy. Li Jing flattens a palm over his heart. “Are you sure you want chandeliers? It seems a bit tawdry for a book store.”
He nods, features contorted into a rictus. “It will bring you rich customers.”
“The rich don’t read.”
Zhang Yong mimed a scowl. “They do, if they know what’s good for them. The wise build their businesses on the spine of books.”
Li Jing’s mouth quirks and she cups the back of his neck with her other hand. Lips smooth against the creased flesh of his forehead. In the beginning, the two had considered divulging Li Jing’s new endowment to their children, but discarded the idea. She was too old, and it was too little to warrant the torrent of questions to follow. And who knew where gossip would drag the revelation, which scientist might come demanding access the contents of Li Jing’s flesh? “A poet to the end, aren’t we?”
“Can’t risk losing you to a young man yet.”
Yet. The word catches Li Jing off-guard, a noose that bites deep. Preparation is not panacea, only armor to help weather sorrow. Regardless of Li Jing’s efforts, reminders of her husband’s mortality still cut like razors, dividing reason from self, leaving only heart-flesh that is raw and red.
She averts her face but she is not quick enough. The humor in Zhang Yong’s gaze, innocent in its frankness, dies at the anguish that flits through hers.
“I’m so sorry, darling. I’m –“
“It’s okay.” Li Jing cannot endure his grief, not when she already has so much of her own to balance. “Eat your dinner. I will clean up.”
Their eyes do not meet for fear of what might have pooled them, salt in old wounds. Li Jing bows her head and stalks peace through a forest of unwashed dishes, through the fleeting rhythms of domesticity.
“This is…slightly unexpected,” Li Jing tells the procession at her door, caution beating hummingbird wings in her chest.
They are all here, she thinks. The entire clan. Her eyes find relatives memory had previously transformed into vague blots of words and actions, grandnieces and grandchildren grown sapling-sleek. Li Jing’s gaze maps the bleakness of their attire, stark monochrome complemented by fisted hands and dour expressions. Wariness thickens into a weight.
“Everyone’s here to see Ah Kong.” Zhang Wei stands in the vanguard, comforting in his breadth. “And you, of course.”
“He’s not dead.” The statement is razored. A warning. Li Jing pushes on the door, only to locate Zhang Wei’s foot in the split. “You don’t have to come en masse just yet. One at a time. And today is not a good day. He’s tired and so am I.”
“Ah Ma. Please.”
Li Jing glances over the horizon of her shoulder, finds Zhang Yong’s silhouette in the antechamber to their bedroom. She sighs. Her husband had always been the disciplinarian, she the tender heart of their family. Zhang Wei’s desperation peels back her shell, leaves only grudging assent.
“Only if you promise to keep the children quiet.”
The stream of guests is endless, overwhelming, coiling through the house like snakes. Li Jing loses herself in the cadence of their arrivals, oscillating from kitchen to seating areas, moving cups of tea and day-old pastries. Eventually, she allows her children and her grandchildren to assist her. Under her supervision, they concoct cookies, mugs of hot chocolate, delicate things to nibble upon between anecdotes.
The hours pass.
Suspicion melts into an elegiac contentment, even as Li Jing watches Zhang Yong come alive under the constant attention. It has been months since his eyes glittered so brightly. Only once, at some indistinct point in the afternoon, does she feel a whine of irrational terror, a worry that they might be thieving from a diminishing supply. That when they leave, they leave her with only a husk of a husband, hollowed of humanity.
But her panic is fleeting, replaced by guilt. That’s not how people work, Li Jing tells herself, pushing aside the warning bells that clang and dance in the back of her head.
The hours continue their patient march.
“Where do you keep Ah Kong’s things?”
Li Jing jolts her head up.
Most of the guests have departed, leaving Zhang Wei and his woman, an older couple that Li Jing does not recognize and their brood of three, a niece she barely remembers. Faces without names, perambulating through a home suddenly two sizes too small.
“Why?” It is the only word that she can manage.
“They’re expecting him at the home.”
“The home?” Li Jing repeats, throat parched. “What home?”
“There’s a nursing home at the corner of the city,” Zhang Wei replies, his eyes roving the room, unwilling to meet Li Jing’s. “It’s a good place. Great, in fact. Highest-rated in the whole city. They even have a dedicated zoning area for patients. Beautiful, beautiful place. Well-attended. Grandpa will look splendid there.”
Li Jing’s voice is child-soft, child-meek. “But we decided he would stay here. Besides, our neighborhood needs a book store.”
“What if he becomes a library instead? You hardly have the space for that.”
He won’t, Li Jing thinks. I’ve seen the blueprints tattooed on his stomach. I’ve seen the cache of books in his liver, the oaken shelving of his ribs, the old-fashioned cash register nursed in his left lung.
“That’s not the point,” Li Jing tells her grandchild, hands convulsing.
“No,” Zhang Wei agrees, stepping forward to arrest her shoulders with broad palms. “The point is we’re trying to do what is best for you. I promise you. It will be fine. You need to believe me. Come, Ah Ma. We’ve even organized a rotation system. You’ll have rooms with all of us and live with each family a week at a time.”
“No,” Li Jing says, trying to wrestle away. But Zhang Wei’s grip is as inexorable as death’s advances. “No. I’m not going with you.”
“It’d be fine.” Zhang Wei sighs, voice now feathered with a twinge of frustration. “Besides. Look. Ah Kong agreed.”
He unfurls a cream-colored parchment, its tail branded with Zhang Yong’s jagged signature.
“You tricked him.”
“Be reasonable, Ah Ma. Why would I do that?”
“He’s old. You — I didn’t see him reading that. He didn’t talk to me about it and we always, always discuss contracts together. What did you do? What did you do?” Li Jing’s voice crests into a shout, red-stained with fury. She squeezes her eyes shut. Her veins feel stretched like power cords, crackling.
“I told him what he needed to know. Anyway, it’s all decided. Ah Ma, please. Don’t make this difficult.”
Li Jing closes a fist, feels her fingers constrict around her dread, around the panic that clogs her lungs and her thoughts and her throat. Feels her grip choke earth and stone, walls and wood.
And something breaks.
You are not taking away my husband! Li Jing startles at the scream, for it is almost hers. It emanates from every dimension, avalanche-loud, incendiary. The old woman opens her eyes and marvels as the room curls around her like a loyal serpent, pillars and rafters curving liked the bowed backs of religious supplicants.
“Get out.” She snarls between sobs. “Get out and leave us. Get out and take away all of your presumptions, your rotations, your, your — get out.”
When her family hesitates, Li Jing answers with a ripple of the floor, spears of cherrywood coursing forward like hounds on the hunt. It takes a heartbeat for epiphany to strike, but the other occupants of her bloodline soon flee in a stampede of footsteps and wails.
The house throbs in Li Jing’s blood. She can feel her husband’s heartbeat slackening, cooling to rock, to the ticking of a grandfather clock. In all the clamor, she had lost track of her husband’s condition.
“I’m here.” Li Jing stumbles to Zhang Yong’s side, sinks to her knees. Her embrace is ferocious. “I’m here, I’m here. I’m here.”
Too soon, too soon, too soon. The thought presses salt into the membrane of her eyes. She thought they had more time together, more weeks. This is too soon.
What she says instead is:
She will tell him that a thousand times if she has to. Until her words become a wall between him and the dark. “And it will be all right. And when I die, I’ll have them put my bones in your garden. We’ll be together always.”
Zhang Yong says nothing, only tenses his hold on her hand.
“I’m here. Don’t worry,” Li Jing repeats softly, as though the statement was an invocation against grief.
She is still whispering to him when the light bleeds from his eyes, when his skin grays to stone, when her heart disintegrates to ash.
A day passes.
Li Jing’s family return. Instead of her cottage, they discover a gray cube twenty feet high, smooth and featureless as an egg. There are no windows, no exits. They wait for a time, believing Li Jing will eventually emerge. Even the unnatural must eat.
But she does not.
A week flits by.
By the end of the twenty-first sunset, her family surrenders its pursuit. Li Jing and her husband are pronounced deceased, their epitaphs a flurry of tsking noises.
By the end of the year, Li Jing and her husband are consigned to myth and drunken discussion, legends without substance, ghosts to be studied without the frame of truth.
If you promise not to be disruptive, you may visit the store.
— Li Jing
Li Jing signs the last letter and sighs. Her fingers are brocaded with ink, her smile with exhaustion. A part of her aches for the liberty of isolation. It would be simpler than explaining everything that had transpired. So much easier than instructing herself not to loathe Zhang Wei for his intent, to forgive his motivation if not his actions.
But that is not what Zhang Yong would have desired.
Li Jing sips tea from a cup made from her husband’s bones, its golden heat suffusing the ivory with something almost like life. Her eyes wander the ribs of her new domicile. The store is beautiful, lush with books and paintings like photographs, conjured flawless from history. When she closes her eyes, Li Jing can see her family exploring the space, investigating cabinet and bookshelf, stove and garden. Briefly, she wonders how Zhang Wei will take to the statuette of him, marble-skinned and pissing fresh water into a horse-shoe shaped pond.
Tomorrow, she decides, she will send out the letters and court her family’s questions.
Tonight, it is tea and reading and learning the patterns of this unfamiliar silence, which sit as awkwardly as new lovers. Nothing will ever replace the way Zhang Yong’s presence curled around hers, jigsaw-snug. There will never be a salve for the gasping loneliness she experiences each morning when she awakens and, in that purgatory between sleep and awareness, forgets why his side of the bed is unfilled.
But she will survive, will rebuild her existence, brick by brick, around the absence. Li Jing has a lifetime of memories in her foundations. It will never be perfect again, but it will be, someday, enough.
Li Jing splays her book, begins to read. And in the quiet, the rustle of pages sounds like the chuckle of love departed but never forgotten.
Cassandra Khaw is the business developer for small Singaporean game micropublisher Ysbryd, and the writer for indie puzzle game Perlinoid. She’s also writing an Interactive Fiction novel for Choice of Games, freelancing for a variety of tech outlets, and blankly trying to figure out where to cram in more short story writing. Cassandra can be found at http://www.twitter.com/casskhaw where she tweets like a fiend.