I still remember that evening: In the heavy air, the plastic dragonflies hovered just below the eaves like miniature helicopters, drifting about slightly even though there was no wind.
I came home, and Dad was already in the house but kept the lights off. The setting sun came in through cracks in the window, and his face seemed indescribably thin in the dim, yellow light, like a stranger’s. He extended an arm toward me and the sleeve hung loose as though it contained only bones and no muscle. Without even realizing I was doing so, I tried to hang back, staying away from him.
“Qianer, come here. Let Daddy get a look at you.”
I struggled to understand the meaning behind his words. He tried to look at me every day, regardless of my wishes. It seemed that other than looking at me, he had nothing else to say or do. He was always getting my age wrong. Sometimes he would ask me if I was getting along with the other children, and I felt that he was only making conversation because whenever I brought up Xiao Qing or Nana, he always put on an expression that said I’m-interested-but-who-is-that? even though I’d already repeated those names for him at least eight million times.
“Qianer,” he said, and seemed unsure if he should go on. “I want to tell you something.”
“Are you about to go on another business trip?” I asked dutifully.
“No, it’s not that. I’m never going on a trip again.”
“Then you won’t be able to buy me the newest Little Pixies?”
Little Pixies were colorful plastic dolls with fluorescent wings. Dad thought every girl in the world liked them, and so every time he went on a business trip he’d bring back the season’s models from the big cities. They formed a cheerleading squad at the foot of my bed.
“Little Pixies? Oh, we can buy them through the mail, as long as you like them.” He seemed to think of something, and his eyes brightened. “Qianer, I want to tell you that I’ve been Chosen as a host.”
I looked at him blankly, letting him know that I didn’t understand the term.
“It means that the spirit of an animal has chosen to live in my body and make use of my strength until it can become a real animal.”
“Wow, that sounds cool!” I had never heard of such a thing, and asked suspiciously, “But what kind of animal?”
“Oh . . . A snake? A parrot? Definitely not a rhinoceros. To be honest, I don’t know. Before its form is fixed, a spirit can become any animal, and it’s up to me. What animal would you like?”
“A mao,” I said. “A Bosi mao.” I’d always wanted a white-haired, blue-eyed Persian cat, but Mom had always mercilessly refused. It’s hard enough raising you, she always said.
“Then it will be a mao spirit, the spirit of a cat. You have to work together with me, all right?” The light in his eyes dimmed.
“Okay,” I said. But I didn’t really believe him.
• • •
Dad wasn’t always like that.
Back when I was still in kindergarten, I remember him riding his bicycle to the school every afternoon to wait for me. When little me got to sit on the child’s seat on the rear carrier of the 28” bike, I was as excited as if I got to ride a dinosaur. I most looked forward to rainy days so that Dad would cover me with the wide, spacious tent of his rubbery-smelling raincoat. All I could see then were the tire spinning under me and the rapidly receding ground, and I had to guess where we were.
– Are we at Zhongshan Road yet?
– Not yet.
– Are we at Red Pavilion yet?
– We already passed it.
– Are we home yet?
A crisp and joyful braking sound.
Dad stayed home every evening. He would watch TV and then fall asleep on the couch. He was fat then, and again and again his belly would swell like an angry puffer fish and then deflate, jittering, accompanied by his snores. I liked to press my ear against it and listen to the thunderous rumbling from within, which had a hypnotic magic.
Back then Mom and Dad often argued, as if playing some secret game. Whenever I caught them, they pretended that nothing was wrong and changed the topic to me. Of course I knew that most of the arguments were because of money.
Each time, after they fought, Dad would be silent for a few days, like a TV set that was put on mute.
Later, he spent less and less time at home. He went on many business trips and brought back lots of presents for Mom and me. They didn’t fight as much, but it wasn’t clear if that was due to the presents or because it was hard for them to even spend much time together. His potbelly disappeared, and when he put on his uniform, he looked as handsome as a movie star. The way Mom looked at him changed as well, as if she had turned from a tiger to a rabbit.
For me, Dad became a Santa Claus that showed up too often, bringing me new toys that no one at school had seen. The other kids liked to mill about me, asking about this and that, and I was always glad to share with them and lend them my toys. Compared to those lifeless objects, I preferred small animals, the sort that were lively and active. I read all the animal encyclopedias that could be found in the library. My interest wasn’t in the background explanatory text, but the pictures, so that I could imagine what they were like before they went extinct.
And so, the next time Dad went on a trip, he would bring back artificial animals that had ever more lifelike movements and made ever more realistic noises. I stuffed all of them into the toy chest under my bed.
We had less and less to say to each other. Like all third graders, I began to see my parents as mechanical auto-response programs.
– Have you had dinner?
– How was school today?
– All right.
– How’s studying for the midterms coming?
– Pretty good.
– Study hard and get a good grade. Then we’ll take you on a vacation to the reservations and see real animals.
Like the frog that slowly crawled out of the well, too many new sights competed for our attention. In this vast world, our parents slipped irrevocably from the center to the periphery, their colors dulling, their voices fading.
Dad was no exception. I could never be sure when he would appear. He was like a bat at night, revealing himself only momentarily as he skimmed below a streetlight.
I never even noticed his clothes growing looser and looser on him.
I guess Mom did notice. She always told Dad to eat more at dinner. Finally, one night, Dad threw up.
• • •
Every Monday through Thursday, Dad went to the Chosen Center to be counseled. This meant that I only had to endure the sounds of his vomiting on weekend nights. At first I believed that what was inside him was a Persian because he sounded like paws were continuously scratching at his inner organs and something couldn’t wait to come out of his throat.
I kept on asking what the Chosen Center was like and what sort of counseling they were giving Dad, but Mom just glanced at me, wearily, without answering.
Weakly, Dad parted his pale, chapped lips full of bloody cracks. He smiled and said, When the Persian has fixed its form, then you can come to the Chosen Center. Mom gave him a look, and he shut up.
Mom seemed to have turned from a rabbit back into a tiger, but Dad was now so thin he was like a skeleton. They fought again, but most of the time I only heard Mom’s voice. Dad’s endless coughing was his only response.
Before I fell asleep, I heard Dad’s coughing slowly drifting closer. It erupted into a fit right outside my door before quieting down. Dad came in and sat down on the edge of my bed. He hadn’t told me a bedtime story in a long time.
I pretended to be interested, but inside I prayed that he wouldn’t repeat those ancient fables from books that I’d heard a thousand times.
“I want to tell you what it means to be Chosen as a host.”
My eyes opened wide.
When Dad was a little boy, the world still had many living animals. They weren’t kept in special, sealed cages and could freely play and run about. Other than specially engineered pets, people could also touch untamed, wild animals without worrying about unknown viruses. But time changed everything. People cut down the forests, dug holes in the rich soil, erected steel cities and pipes, released polluted water and poisonous gases—until other living things had nowhere to run. They left their countless dead bodies behind, drying in the wind and then rotting away.
“Their souls drifted about, searching for hosts.” Dad’s deliberately casual tone only terrified me more.
“But why you?”
“Where I go on my business trips is close to the edge of the protective cover. There, souls sometimes float in.”
My textbook said that in order to keep the heavy pollution out, the government wrapped the city in a protective cover. But the book never mentioned anything about souls.
“Then, what will you look like?”
Dad was seized by a sudden fit of coughing: His veins stood out on his forehead, his eyes bulged, his neck turned red, and I seemed to be able to see the cat’s green eyes from down his throat.
“Are you talking nonsense again? It’s time for your medicine!” Mom had appeared at my door without either of us noticing. She seemed angry. “Qian Qian, it’s time to sleep. You have school tomorrow.”
Dad coughed until tears came out of his eyes. He waved his hand, and Mom helped him out of my room.
“Don’t turn off the light!” I begged Mom.
The light went out.
In the darkness, I closed my eyes. Around me, tiny sparks of light of all colors drifted, like a whole zooful of souls.
• • •
Mom always thought I wasn’t as pretty as her, and of course the part of me that made me not as pretty came from Dad. So she came up with a detailed plan to compensate for this unfixable defect.
She signed me up for all kinds of classes: fitness, music, and history, which I hated. She hoped to mold me into an elegant, graceful, cultured young lady. Everything was so that I’d find a good husband. Or as she put it: Worst comes to worst, you’d at least be able to get a decent job.
Just don’t be like me, she always added in a whisper to herself.
The history teacher was a fat woman whose messy hair sat on top of her head like a clump of sun-dried seaweed. She would recite events and dates in a voice like a squealing dolphin, and I would sit there, struggling not to fall asleep. Perhaps because I hated the class so much, I always thought what she said each week was different from what she had said the week before. For example, last week she said that the Great Wall was built to defend against foreign invaders, but this week she said that the Great Wall was a symbol for how the people were enslaved. But the textbook really did say that. I couldn’t tell who was wrong.
I liked to draw pictures of animals in the corners of the textbook pages. I’d sketch them so that they were crouched next to a poet, or about to bite off the beautiful head of some Imperial consort. The doodles would disappear each week as the textbook automatically refreshed itself.
Still, I had to carefully avoid having Mom see them. I couldn’t forget how she had reacted that one time when she discovered my creations.
She had stared at me wordlessly, her face as cold as a stone.
“You’re nothing like me,” she said. “When I was young, I hated furry little things. You’re not my child.”
Even though she had said this more than once, hearing it still felt like having a bucket of ice water thrown on me. I trembled and erased the animal drawings with an electronic eraser. The outlines, fur, and bodies of the animals gradually disappeared into blank, white space.
“Now you’re a tiny bit like me.” Mom stroked my head, her lips showing the hint of a smile.
• • •
I told Xiao Qing and Nana about my Dad. Xiao Qing was envious.
“Wow, that sounds so cool. A real Persian! It must cost a lot if you were to buy one.”
“My mom wouldn’t let me keep it.”
“You can keep it at my house. My mom wouldn’t care.”
“Can I go see it every day?”
“Um . . . You can see it every Wednesday and Friday. I don’t have extra lessons then.”
Timidly, Nana asked, “Are you sure it’s a mao spirit?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My grandfather once told me a story that sounded a bit like your story, but . . .”
“He called them mao ghosts.”
I can never forget Nana’s story. Because of it, I didn’t speak to her for half a semester.
A thousand years ago there was a dynasty called the Sui Dynasty. At that time people practiced a kind of magic in which the mage could make the ghost left behind after a cat has died kill specific victims and seize their property. Thus, mages often deliberately slaughtered cats to increase the number of mao ghosts. Countless cats lost their lives back then for such evil purposes.
Among the many relations of the Sui Imperial clan there was a man named Dugu Tuo. He directed a mao ghost to kill his own sister, Empress Dugu. After the plot was exposed, the Sui court banned mao ghosts and exiled all the mages who practiced mao ghost magic along with their families to the remote frontiers of the empire. For a long time after, it seemed as if this kind of magic had disappeared from the world, but such was not the case.
When Nana’s grandfather was a young man, he had experienced a period when madness reigned. During those ten years, the magic of mao ghosts was revived. The fad was so popular that every family had to keep a cat to deter potential enemies. It was said that when a mao ghost attached itself to a man, his body and inner organs would all be subjected to the pain of being stabbed by needles as the mao ghost ate away the inner organs. Soon after, the man would die, vomiting blood.
“You lie!” I remember crying as I screamed at Nana. “You’re just like your grandfather, a big liar!”
• • •
I remember Mom and Dad arguing about things like “Those Ten Years Under Mao” and such similar topics late at night. Maybe they were certain that I was already asleep, or maybe they thought I couldn’t understand them. Since I was doodling animals as I hid under the blanket, I decided to add dialog bubbles to the rabbit and the tiger as I listened.
Tiger: “Haven’t you seen? They’re again spreading those foolish rumors about mao ghosts.”
Rabbit (sigh): “What do you wish them to say?”
“Who knows what’s the truth now? All the books have been carefully filtered, and all we can read are reports from newspapers that are refreshed daily at the designated time. Without these ghost stories, I’m afraid no one will remember anything.”
“Don’t you think that’s exactly what they want? Using myths, ghost stories, and fairy tales, they make us forget the past, forget the crimes they committed, whether it’s ‘Those Ten Years’ or the protective cover. And then they shift all the responsibility to the ghosts of cats and dogs.”
“But you must admit that this has made people less angry so that they can focus on the life in front of them.”
“I don’t want my daughter to live like us: a lifetime of being fooled. I want her to know history.”
“But history has already been filtered.”
“. . .”
“All right. They pretend to preach, and we pretend to believe. As long as we know the truth inside our heads, everything is fine.”
“It’s because you’re so good at knowing the truth but pretending to be confused that you ended up where you are today.”
“Isn’t that why you love me?”
“. . .”
I flipped through the sketchbook to that page. As I read through the dense dialog between Tiger and Rabbit, I seemed to understand something, and seemed to understand nothing.
• • •
I couldn’t believe this was my father.
His hair had all disappeared so his face appeared even smaller, more wrinkled. From deep down in his throat, I could hear gulping sounds like some fish in the ocean. But wasn’t he supposed to be a Persian cat?
“Daddy!” Tears flowed from my eyes. “Are you going to die?”
He opened his eyes only after a while, as though trying to recall some dream. He saw me and smiled with great difficulty. The smile was more unbearable than if he were crying.
“Qianer, do you remember the mao spirit? Daddy won’t die. Daddy will become a cat and live on.”
I told him the story about mao ghosts.
He laughed again, but the laugh turned into a violent fit of coughing. Tilting his neck, he spat into the spittoon next to the bed. The spittle was thick and faintly red.
“Qianer,” he said, his voice raspy. “In ancient times, an emperor believed that if his name were used by the people, his power would weaken and even his life might be shortened. So he decreed the following: Whenever people needed to use one of the characters in his name, they had to substitute another character with the same reading or else be put to death.
“After some time, the people ended up with a superstition: Not only would using the characters in the emperor’s name bring misfortune, but it was dangerous to even discuss what happened at the Imperial court. They invented many ways to use one word to substitute for another, to make one thing mean another. The animals were one way to make such substitutions. This allowed them to live more comfortably.”
He seemed to have talked too much and began to cough again. For a moment I feared that the cough would never stop.
He spat out more reddish liquid and continued, “Nana’s grandfather told you a story in which he used the cat as a substitute for the emperor on the throne back then. He had suffered a great deal. Maybe he just didn’t want Nana to suffer in the same way.”
I was suspicious. “I don’t remember the textbook ever mentioning any emperor whose name was Mao.”
“His name was like a mao ghost, possessing the magic to kill anyone. The people who lived back then would use his images and little red books filled with his words as weapons to attack others and to protect themselves. Nowadays, we’re not allowed to mention his name or ‘Those Ten Years.’ But his soul still drifts around us, waiting for an opportunity for a host to be Chosen.”
I shivered without knowing why. The hairs on the backs of my arms stood up.
“This sounds even scarier than mao ghosts . . .”
“I think you’re right, Qianer. When people are seized by madness, they’re far more savage than animals.”
“So . . . does that mean you won’t die? But why don’t you have any hair?”
“I’m guessing it’s because the cat loves to shed.”
“Is it like a superpower?”
“Yes, just like a superpower.”
“But why have you been Chosen? I also want to have superpowers. You also promised you’d take me to the Chosen Center.”
Dad’s eyelids drooped like a sleepy cat’s. I shook him, and meowed at him softly, but he didn’t respond.
• • •
Mom told me not to bother Dad. He needed to rest, she told me.
“But when will Dad turn into a Persian cat?”
Mom’s face grew dark, the same expression she had when she saw me doodling. I shivered.
“Qian Qian, do you want your father, or do you want a Persian cat?”
I answered timidly, “. . . Both.”
She took a deep breath. “What if you can pick only one?”
I stared at her, remembering Dad’s words.
Daddy won’t die. Daddy will become a cat and live on.
“I want . . . a Persian cat.”
Mom slapped me in the face, hard.
“You are not my child! You’re also not your father’s child. You’re something we pulled out of a garbage heap!” Her voice trembled.
I howled, crying with every ounce of strength in my body. Tears flooded my face.
“You made Daddy go on those business trips! You’re the one who got him Chosen by the mao spirit! It’s all because of you!”
Mom was stunned. Her eyes turned red, and she suddenly hugged me tight, mumbling, “I didn’t know. I really didn’t know . . .”
Her tears soaked my hair. This was the first time I can ever remember that happening.
• • •
Dad took off my blindfold. “Ta-da! We’re here!”
My eyes struggled to adjust to the light after the darkness. We were in a brightly lit, open, white room. Dad told me that only the Chosen could come in here. In order to sneak me in, my eyes had to be covered.
This was so cool, even though I had long stolen glances at the building from afar. The building’s sign started with a huge “C”, followed by five more letters that had been covered by so much graffiti that they were no longer recognizable, and then the word “Center.” “C Center” was what people usually called it. Dad was the first to let me know that the first word was “Chosen.” I was glad to learn of this even though I thought the graffiti-covered letters seemed to say something else.
Dad was in good spirits. He brought me around to visit all the other Chosen.
Mr. Ding’s belly seemed to have a large centipede on top of it right under the skin, crawling from left to right, waving its pincers. He very generously allowed me to touch the centipede’s fleshy pincers. I touched it carefully, and it responded by moving. I pulled my hand back in fright. Both he and Dad laughed.
Uncle Liu’s arms had loose folds of skin hanging from them. He pulled the skin taut against the sunlight so that I could see the capillaries through the translucent skin like the veins of a leaf. He waved his stick-thin arms, and the loose skin flapped around. He whispered to me that he was actually Batman, but he had forgotten to wear his mask.
Uncle Zhang looked like a non-purebred Dalmatian. He extended a paw to me, very friendly, and then stuck out his bright pink tongue.
Grandpa Sun’s body was full of transparent tubes stuck into him, even in his nose. Dad said that he had been Chosen by an octopus, and those tubes were his tentacles. But I thought he resembled some long-legged spider more.
A young woman dressed in white came in with a tray and handed everyone a dark brown beverage and a small cup holding pills.
“Is that cola?” I asked. “I want some, too.”
“That’s not cola, but a kind of nutritious soup that will help the animal spirit in each host grow. Only the Chosen may drink it.”
Everyone frowned as they swallowed the pills and drank the beverage. One after another, they burped. The room was soon filled with a terrible smell. I held my nose and giggled.
I shouted, “I want to be like you when I grow up and become a Chosen host.”
Their bald heads turned to each other, as though not understanding what I said. Then they all looked at Dad. Dad scratched his equally hairless head and raised the empty cup in his hand.
“To the Persian!”
“To the Persian!”
Everyone raised their empty cups.
• • •
One night, before sleep, Mom came to my bed and tucked me in.
Then she sat and stared at me, as though trying to discover something new on my face.
“Mom, what are you looking at?”
“Nothing.” Mom smiled. “I’m thinking that maybe it’s not so bad that you look like your father. At least, when I want to see him, I can just look at you.”
“You’re saying . . .”
“Your father is a simple man. He wants everyone to be happy, to live the life they want. But I always want others to live the life I want.”
“Mom . . .”
“Before, I always thought that since you came out of me, you’re my second life. So I wanted to make you realize all the dreams that I couldn’t fulfill.”
She fell silent. The light limned her face in a soft glow, and in the shadows of her eye sockets bright lights sparkled.
“Chosen—is that what he said? I was Chosen by you. Right now, I only want you to be healthy and happy.”
She stroked my face, leaned down to give me a light kiss on the forehead, got up and left.
She left the glowing, orange light on.
• • •
I woke to find something heavy sitting on my chest.
A white-haired, blue-eyed Persian was curled on top of the blanket. Placidly, it looked at me.
“Dad, is that you?” I whispered.
It opened its mouth and yawned.
I fed it, bathed it, combed its hair. It shed thin, soft tufts of hair all over the house, just like Dad; it liked to chew different kinds of leaves and then heave its shoulders and vomit up large, sticky hairballs, just like Dad; every day, after getting home, I would tell it everything that had happened at school—the new outfits that Xiao Qing and Nana had on, the new, sparkling toy jewelry they wore—it always yawned and turned its face away, bored, and then used its paws to bat at the Little Pixies and artificial animals scattered on the floor, just like Dad.
I tried to draw it: pencil sketches and colored portraits, asleep and in mid-leap, on paper and on textbooks—teeth bared and claws extended, it would pounce at the famous historical figures. Sometimes, the images of those emperors, great leaders, scientists, or poets would disappear without cause, leaving only my cat to jump up and down between the lines of text in the history books. I began to think that this class wasn’t so bad after all.
I never knew what to name it.
I was sure that if I called it by Dad’s name, Mom wouldn’t be happy. But I didn’t want to call it a cutesy name like “Mimi,” “Blanca,” or “Isabella.”
In the end, I decided to call it “Mao.”
It was just like Dad taught me: Using one thing to substitute for another allowed one to live more comfortably.
Sometimes Mom would come in to help me go to sleep. We’d lie on the bed together, Mao curled between us. We’d stroke Mao’s soft, warm back, talking about one thing or another. Sometimes Mao might lift its head and softly meow, as though giving its opinion. Then we’d stop talking and, silently, by the orange glow of the light, gaze together at the pictures of Mao in various poses hanging on the wall.
I knew what Mom was thinking about: Dad. Just like me.
I really miss him.
“Mom,” I blurted out. “Mao isn’t going to get cancer too, is he?”
She looked at me, her eyes glinting in the light. I could tell she struggled between telling the truth and substituting something else. She put her hand against my face. “I don’t know. We never know. We can hope.”
Quietly, Mom got off the bed and walked away.
“Mom, please turn off the light,” I called to her.
The light went out. In the darkness, two floating green lights slowly appeared like two beautiful emeralds, sparkling and gazing at me. I knew that was Dad wanting to see me. I closed my eyes, and the lights remained there. I knew that they’d always be there, accompanying me into my dreams . . .
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