WRITTEN BY CATHERINE XIE
Initially published by The Incandescent Review and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
If her friends ask her to play in the neighborhood courtyard after school, Sarah Wu always finds herself saying “Sorry guys. You know how it is.” Even in the heat of the summer, when the golden cicadas threaten to drown out the roar of the city below, she always apologizes over the phone and pads her way back to the piano bench. There, the gentle whirring of the old fan floats over Bach’s Two-Part Inventions until Sarah is melting from the sticky air and the smell of hawthorn berries.
“Silly girl,” Grandfather always said. “There are no hawthorn trees in Orlando.” His eyes would twinkle. “There are too many oranges”.
But the panging scent does not leave Sarah alone, even when she graduates from Two-Part Inventions to Three-Part Inventions, even when her teacher finally lets her touch a Beethoven sonata.
Her grandfather always listens to her play with his cup of green tea steaming, even in the heat. Most days he would try to read the paper, sometimes even stopping Sarah so he can ask her to read a word out loud.
“Su - per - sti - tious,” Sarah says. She struggles to find the words in Chinese. “It’s like, like, when you won’t flip the fish over when you eat, or when you hung the rain doll on our porch.” In March, her grandfather had strung up a rain doll before the front door because he had feared the cherry tomatoes would not sprout in the non-stop storms.
“It’s not even close to Halloween yet,” her friends had said. “Why do you have that creepy ghost on your porch?” Sarah had laughed with them, telling them that her grandfather thought the ghost would stop the rain. Her friends had shrugged, but she was glad when the rain stopped two days later.
Sarah’s grandfather loves to watch her play, but she loves to hear him sing even more. He’d bellow in the living room after a dinner of ma la xiang guo, “to get the fire out his lungs.” The hawthorn smell is strongest then, but the salivating scent does not bother Sarah when her stomach is full. She loves the way he puffs out his chest in their cramped living room as if he is making his debut in Vienna’s Wiener Staatsoper instead of serenading their potted green onions. If she is lucky, he sings Mozart, but most of the time he sings the “The East is Red” or “Wo De Zu Guo”.
“It sits well in my voice,” he says whenever Sarah asks why he doesn’t sing something else. Even though she knows that he has to be lying, as his old war songs had never made her cry like the Mozart did, she doesn’t push him. If she did, he would ask her to play instead, even though she already finished the day’s practice.
When Dad left, he told Sarah to take care of his father for him.
“He’s getting old, you know. His memory isn’t like what it used to be.” Sarah was sitting on the piano bench, staring at her motionless hands on the black and white keys. She had been practicing her Beethoven, trying to make her arpeggios sound less childish.
“I’ll be back before you know it.” Dad seemed to hesitate, before - “You should play more - for him. He loves watching you play.”
So whenever Sarah stands up from the piano bench, wishing the sheet music to melt away with her, wishing the blurry black dots to clear up again, wishing that Bach had never been born because good gods why would someone ever cross their fourth finger over the fifth this ungodly amount of times - she always sits back down.
“Bao Bei,” Grandfather said to her once, when she was on that piano bench, “do you want to hear a new story?” Sarah was excited; she loved his stories, especially the ones about his time in the cavalry and the red mare he had kept. She had laughed when he told her that the mare had nearly broken his legs when he first mounted her. She had smiled when he told her about how he crawled into the stables to feed the mare oats when she had fallen ill. She had cried when he told her of when the mare had tried to outrun the train that brought him back to Shanghai.
“She had hair like fire,” Grandfather had said. “It was exciting back then - I thought that I would ride her into battle. We would have burned down our enemies - even the American tanks.” But Sarah and Grandfather knew that that never happened. The war was over before he had reached the front lines.
“What story tonight?” she asked. “Is it another one about your horse?” Her grandfather smiled.
“No, this happened after,” he said. “It’s about how I learned to sing.” Sarah perked up. Grandfather seldom spoke of his singing and always found the need to go water their plants when she asked.
“It was such a long time ago,” he said, the way he started all his stories. “I had found myself a teacher, and I thought I was going to be famous.”
“Was the teacher good?” Sarah interrupted. Her grandfather smiled.
“The best. He had come back from his studies in Europe, which seemed like worlds away back then. Nobody I knew had ever been to Europe, and suddenly there was someone right there, willing to teach me.”
“You must’ve been very good then, to get such a great teacher,” Sarah said with a tinge of pride. Her grandfather had laughed, and she had laughed, until they were both choking in the sticky summer air.
Sarah didn’t realize that she had never heard the rest of the story until a week later when she told her father about it over the phone. Perched on a stool, she was eating the tanghulu Grandfather had made for her that afternoon. He had dipped each hawthorn carefully into a pot of boiling brown sugar and then spent the rest of the hour fending her off as he waited for the syrup to crystallize into a delicate veil. Sarah had only been teasing though - she knew that tanghulu tastes best cold.
“What happened to his teacher, anyway?” she asked. The line went silent, until her father sniffed. Sarah could see his face clearly then, brows furrowed, back straight. He had the look of a man who had not yet learned how to lie to children, but, to his credit, he was getting better at it.
“He decided to stay an artist when the Cultural Revolution came.” Her father stopped as if she would understand. Sarah did not understand, though she had heard of the Revolution. She only heard her grandfather mention it once after his face had turned cherry red from a single shot of vodka.
“Revolution” and “comrades” were the only words she had caught before Grandfather’s head slumped into the balcony chair’s cushion. The night air had been hot and stifling, so Sarah only had to throw a light blanket over him before turning the lights off.
Sarah asked her father what he meant. She wondered if she should laugh and tell him that she could practically hear his forehead wrinkling further.
Later, her father would tell her that he couldn’t remember if the teacher had killed himself, or if the Communists had gotten to him first. It would all pass through her as she sat frozen to her chair, the sugar of the hawthorns running down her hands.