The History of Water
BY KELLY X. HUI
Like any good daughter, I believe my mother when she lies. The first lie I remember, though, the one about my father, has always seemed the most honest. Your Nainai gave birth to him in a river outside Chengdu, my mother says. She spent eighteen hours with her knees pressed against a dirt bed. He came out a fish, slick and pink with want. He swam away and never came back.
This is all she says about him. My mother is a good storyteller because she is unwasteful with her words. She believes in the economy of language, in its cost and its precision. My father is worth half a sentence, a few choice phrases in Mandarin.
When my fifth-grade class goes on a field trip to the aquarium, I translate the permission slip for her wrong, replacing “aquarium” with “museum.” I worry that she won’t let me go if she thinks there is a chance I could see my father.
But as the field trip grows closer, I fear I have killed him with my own lie, translated him into bone. A fossilized thing in an exhibition. The day of the field trip, I pretend I’m sick and my mother lets me stay home. I am a good daughter and a fast learner.
When I grow older, I begin to catch her in lies. My friend Jenny Xiao’s father leaves their family and my mother curses: “So American. Back home the men never leave.”
“What about Dad?” I am so stupid and clever with my youth.
My mother chases me out the house with a flyswatter. As I dodge her flimsy violence, I wonder how my father found my mother, the hook of her. I wonder if I am half-fish and that’s why I love to take long showers. I come back hours later, contrite. My mother is sitting at the kitchen table, so still that I could almost believe that she hadn’t moved at all since I left.
“You just forgot how he swam away from us,” I say.
My mother shakes her head. At her hairline a strand of gray shadows her forehead.
“Water is a history,” she insists. “It remembers where it goes and comes back. I remember.”
Before I leave for college, my mother makes me download WeChat and messages me daily. Study hard find good man. Make sure he is not fish. I respond with thumbs up reactions.
She calls me every Sunday to talk. I tell her about my classes, the friends I’ve made. She tells me she’s been going on walks with a woman named Zhang Yue, who has a daughter a year above me.
A few months into the semester, I get four missed calls. It’s my mom, sorry, I mouth to the girl with me. Her name is Eleanor like the Beatles song, and she’s tall like a painting.
“What’s going on, Ma?”
“You didn’t respond. I just make sure it wasn’t you,” she says before hanging up.
I’ve missed a text from her. I click the link she sends me: it tells me that a young woman was found naked and mutilated on the street a couple towns over, and that I have two free articles left this month.
She messages me an hour later. U see?
I reply. yeah. sad
Be careful! Don’t let strange man gut u !
When my mother is angry with me, she has a favorite cautionary tale. In the olden days, when China was going through a boy drought, no one wanted the baby girls that were born. They were starved, abandoned in the middle of fields, thrown into rivers. “Be glad you were born here, where there is no body of water near us,” she says sternly. “No place to drown.” I picture a daughter-shaped river, a flood full of unwanted girls.
“It’s too late,” I say once, joking, because I’ve learned to navigate the distance between drought and mouth. “I’m too big for you to throw.”
“Silly girl. It was always the men who did the throwing.”
The telling of the story unfurls her fury, and at the end she releases a quiet, contented sigh, the sound of a baby girl hitting the river floor.
My mother becomes convinced I am going to die. She sends me more dead girls and makes sure I see each one. She messages me at increasingly odd hours of the night.
Sometimes I lie. I begin staying the night at Eleanor’s and go on WeChat from her bed, languaging it as my own.
So much crime near school! Get nice boyfriend to protect you!!!
I turn off my phone and reach for Eleanor. Somewhere far away, a river begins to flood.
“You’ve forgotten me,” my mother says on the phone with me, plaintive.
“I’m just really busy right now, Ma.”
“Ni shi ge hao nu er, dan shi ni bu ke yi wang zi wo.”
“What do you mean? Hey, have you been going on your walks with Zhang Yue Ayi?”
Just as a river is a type of body, a story is a type of lie.
There is a story my mother tells about a tiger named Hu Gu Po who disguised itself as a woman to eat children. One day, a mother left her two young daughters to go to the market. The tiger-woman came to their village and knocked at the door. When the daughters looked out the window, they saw an old woman with hair the color of the moon.
The woman explained that she had walking all morning and wondered whether these two sweet girls could spare any water. The older daughter gave a cup of water to the old woman through an open window. Next the woman asked for food, for she was quite starving. The younger daughter fetched the rice she had just cooked, standing on her tiptoes to hand it through the window. Then the woman asked to sit as she enjoyed her meal, as she was so weary. Unsure how to refuse, the older daughter let the old woman in. Before she knew it, the old woman was seated at the kitchen table, as if by some strange magic. Concern striping the wrinkle lines on her face, the old woman asked if the girls were alone. The older daughter said yes, and she was sure the woman would want to be on her way as soon as she finished her meal.
“Yes,” Hu Gu Po said. “I am starving.” The tiger opened its mouth, jaw unhinging itself like a door. It swallowed the two daughters whole.
The mother returned to the village at night, when the sky was storm-dark and the wind howled like a man. She saw the open door and rushed into the house, but it was too late. Her daughters were gone. My girls have just gone to the well to get more water, she thought.
Look, our water basin is empty. I will wait for their return. She spent the rest of her life, waiting.
The first time my mother tells me this story, I wait for the twist ending. I think the tiger must be the mother, testing her two daughters. Making sure they are ready for the world. But the lesson here is that some things are simple: mothers cannot become tigers. Tigers eat daughters, and mothers cannot save them.
I get the call that my mother has disappeared when I’m in the shower. I press the phone to my ear but can barely hear Zhang Yue’s nervous voice over the rush of the water. She’s gone, she left the house and hasn’t been back. The police can’t find her. You have to come home.
I wonder if all Chinese women lie well, if the truth is cleaved from them like a country. I call the cops with my wet phone. Your mother is a missing person. Ma’am, where are you? The signal’s shit, I can barely hear you. Can you call us back? The policeman’s job is to arrest the truth, my mother said once. I twist the shower nozzle to the highest setting, hoping to scald off all these lies. I spend so long in the bathroom I half believe I’ll follow the water down the drain.
Water holds memory. Every river is a birth story.
My mother is gone. The police look for months, but they’ll never find her. Zhang Yue plans a funeral, but she isn’t dead.
At night beside Eleanor, I dream of a fish swimming in a river outside a city I’ve never been in. I dream of generous rivers, rivers giving birth to beautiful baby girls, rivers winnowing against the weight of a child.
After the funeral, I come back to my mother’s empty house, sit at the kitchen table, and wait for her return.