We have had the pleasure of publishing a novel translated from Taiwanese to English by Chung Wenyin. For Valentine’s Day we thought it would be a great idea to post and excerpt from the novel. Its called Remembering Lost Loves.
Remembering Lost Loves
Lin Jinju, Ahmam’s mother, always cared about the cost of everything, even trivial things. It brought back a memory of an incident from Ahmam’s childhood that she remembered very clearly. The only outing Ahmam ever took when she was in elementary school was three months before her graduation. Parents were supposed to prepare snacks for their kids. Lin Jinju took her to the market to find some food for her trip. They spent a lot of time browsing in every food stall. Ahmam could feel her mother’s hand calculating numbers even as it was holding hers. Finally she selected an imported apple. Its bottom was shaped like five bent fingers. When they returned home, she tossed it to Ahmam after washing it, Ahmam failed to catch it; it dropped to the floor and rolled several times. Greatly upset by Ahmam’s absent-mindedness, Lin Jinju slapped her hard across the face, leaving an imprint just like the five fingers of the apple on Ahmam’s little face. The next day, Ahmam did not eat the apple; it was too precious. She forgot how long she had treasured the apple, it was at least until the apple’s skin wrinkled like an old man’s and it had dried out. Ahmam ate it anyway. She was appalled to see a worm in the core that seemed to stare out at her. She threw away the apple core out of fear and immediately looked around, afraid her mother might see her odd behavior.
Ahmam got on her feet and walked back to her bedroom. The room had been abandoned a long time ago. Several years ago a super typhoon hit the house. The expanded structure was torn apart, the four walls entirely destroyed. All Ahmam’s belongings were gone with that storm or at best, exposed to heavy rain. There would be a period of time in which Ahmam’s love letters would be found in neighboring farmer’s fields. One of Ahmam’s cousins, helped villagers who suffered from the storm apply for a subsidy from the government. Ahmam’s mother was happy to be given fifty thousand dollars. That was one of the few moments in her life that she did not criticize the government for being a bunch of bloodsuckers. Ahmam slept in the living room for many years after the storm. The wicker chair had been Chung Jien’s, (her father) bed ever since Ahmam could remember. The chair had been like a part of her dad. He crashed in the chair at night as well as in daytime and if it was daytime, he often slept in his work clothes; sometimes coins dropped from his pockets when he turned over. Ahmam had learned to watch and wait for these moments. She would scurry in under the chair to grab the coins. After a while she would be able to afford a movie ticket in town; sometimes she would even buy a picture of the movie stars after watching a movie. Ahmam did not spend all the money. Before her second year of junior high, she slid most of the money in her bamboo bank. Chung Jien had slept in that chair for more than ten years and Ahmam’s long bamboo bank was full with the coins collected during those years.
When Ahmam was in senior high school, the village became a restless casino. People of all ages gathered under the small light bulbs to play. Older people gambled for fun, younger people hoped to earn money to cover their tuition. Chung Jien played but felt ill at ease as he was playing because as Lin Jinju played she yelled frantically at him from another table. Ignored by her parents, Ahmam hung out with her friends along the railway, she considered whether she should run away from home with the savings in her bamboo bank. Ahmam did not run away, instead she gave the bamboo bank to Chung Jien to make up for his gambling losses. “It’s your money anyway.” She said as she handed him the bank. Chung Jien held it, bewildered.
The September Ahmam first went off to college; Lin Jinju squeezed a bag of overly ripe oranges and gave them to Ahmam, she said as she handed them to her. “Take these, I was told that in Taipei’s restaurants, a cup of orange juice is more than one hundred dollars; that’s hellishly expensive.” She took them but as soon as Ahmam got on the train and sat down, she ate the oranges as fast as she could; she did not want to bring them to Taipei. She considered calling home the next day but decided it wasn’t her style. She waited and called home a long time later, after all kinds of freshmen welcoming events were over. When she finally called Lin Jinju scolded her bitterly: “You are a full-fledged adult. You never need to return—just like your father. Don’t be too confident as a college student. I still don’t know where to find the money for your next semester.” The preaching lasted at least half an hour. When Ahmam told her mother that she had run out of coins for the pay phone, her mother finally concluded, “Your dad stayed in the field hut all day; he doesn’t want to come home now.”
Ahmam realized that once she left home, her father quit sleeping in the wicker chair. Chung Jien had built a wooden hut on some barren land near the riverbed. The sound of hammering could be heard during the summer. It was Chung Jien fixing up the hut with more wooden panels in case a storm came. At nightfall, as the smoke of cooking rose here and there, barefoot Chung Jien smoked his cigarette and watched the remote sky gradually turning dark. One summer vacation when Ahmam came home, she paid a visit to her father’s “villa.” She touched the smoky wood panels with her fingers; neither father nor daughter said anything. One night, while Chung Jien squatted near his hut, smoking and drinking, his lone profile attracted the attention of several young thugs. They approached him, kicking over his wine bottle. They took his cigarette and stamped it out on the ground to threaten him. As they pulled him inside the hut, they demanded he give them money. In the dark, shabby room, they kicked over more wine bottles. It was then the thugs realized they had merely caught a drunkard. Chung Jien searched the hut for a while but all he could find was a big head of cabbage. The thugs were stunned.
“ This guy is poorer than us!” They shouted as they ran into the night.
When Lin Jinju learned of the incident and recounted it to others, everyone laughed loudly. Some said Chung Jien was such a poor man. Had they searched his body, they’d have found some pawn shop tickets!” Others said, “Mr. Wu was lucky; those kids were stupid to bother him.” Ahmam laughed with them but when she lowered her head, tears flowed immediately. The last thing Chung Jien took from the house to his hut was a small propane tank and a portable stove. Several years later, Ahmam realized with some surprise that what she was doing in her apartment was repeating her father’s behavior. Lin Jinju had observed the same thing. She had already decided it was because of the genes Ahmam had inherited from her father. There were only two differences between Ahmam and Chung Jien. The first was that Ahmam stole her older brother’s electric heater instead of a stove from home. The second was that in contrast to her narrow place that had been built illegally, cheaply and was cold in the winter and sultry in summer, her father’s hut was by the waterfront with a view of the moon reflecting on the river. Of course Chung Jien wasn’t completely away from home. When Ahmam’s secret plan for getting a loan from the bank in order to move out of the campus dorms was discovered; Lin Jinju was enraged and Chung Jien was at home. The chance that he was at home and accidentally caught in the storm of Lin Jinju’s rage was as slim as getting struck by lightning, he was just that unlucky. “Go to hell! Don’t come back here, either of you!” Ahmam’s mother screamed. Lin Jinju accused him of conspiring with Ahmam.
“Did you even bother to ask her why she wanted you to get the residential registry certificate? And you are her warrantor? Do you know if she fails to pay off the money, it becomes your debt? “
“ You are penniless because you have gambled away everything! How many things have you done in your lifetimes that were not mistakes? You could even go wrong ordering vegetable seeds by not trying to get a better price!”
“When someone asked you to deliver some goods, you did not even find out what goods you were delivering, it turned out to be stolen stuff! “
“Had I not pleaded with people everywhere to save you, you would still be in jail without knowing when you would be released. You are intoxicated all day every day, completely oblivious to the world.”
She continued her rant, “why you don’t just drink urine? Thinking of these things makes my blood boil!” Father and daughter from the same bad seed, doing nothing but making trouble!”
Lin Jinju’s endless criticism was like corrosive acid. It did not stop Chung Jien from drinking his favorite mixed beverage, rice wine laced with a vitamin B energy drink. When this occurred it meant he had won money from gambling, which only irritated Lin Jinju more. She stated that she’d rather get run over by a car than stay in such a hopeless house. Of course Lin Jinju never left the house; she stood in the murky corridor and scolded Ahmam and Chung Jien for two hours. To escape from her cage, Ahmam imagined herself as a camera. The lens was fixed on Lin Jinju’s lips that seemed to never cease moving. When the movement finally stopped, the camera turned to Ahmam as blood dripped from one corner of her mouth. She had killed herself by biting off her own tongue and Chung Jien was nearly drowned in liquor. Lin Jinju was stunned, her jaws opened wildly then a sharp scream broke out as the sparrows in the trees flew away. Ahmam grinned at her not-so-artistic directing; she was deeply excited by the creative exit she was able to conjure with her mind. The next day she received a bank statement, on it were her name and her father’s name, Wu Chung-Jien. In elementary school, all the test papers had to be checked and stamped by a parent; just like the bank notice, her name and her father’s name were together. That trip home, Ahmam did not say a word. She left in silence, Chung Jien went back to his hut quietly too, to relax and smoke cigarettes by the reflection of the moon on the river. Both father and daughter had lost their ability to communicate. Ahmam deliberately took a slow train back to Taipei.
It was June, the song of early cicadas and the heavy panting of the old train accompanied Ahmam northward. When the train arrived at the Yangmei station, the rain began. Ahmam decided to get off and transfer to a train heading east. At the station, Ahmam jostled among a lot of rain-soaked travelers under the train schedule board, she was vexed. After deciding which train she would take, she found a pay phone and dialed Linzhan’s home number. As the call went through, she heard, “Good Day, Meihou Enterprise, may I help you?” The voice was one Ahmam could never forget. Linzhan? I…can I stop by? After a good moment of silence, she finally heard: Sure, you are welcome to come. The words that followed Ahmam did not hear, perhaps she was overwhelmed by Linzhan’s permission or because the sound of kids in the background disrupted their conversation. Ahmam felt her hands shaking as she said good-bye to Linzhan.
When she arrived in Hualien, Linzhan’s hometown, the sky had turned orange. She called Linzhan again, this time the person who answered the phone was a young man whose voice was beginning to change. He asked, “Is this Miss Chang?” Ahmam shook her head instinctively, she knew it was Linzhan’s little brother; she also knew who Miss Chang was. She told him she was Miss Wu, “Oh,” he replied. It seemed she wasn’t entirely a stranger to Linzhan’s brother. He told Ahmam that his brother was not around, Ahmam believed him. After hanging up, she decided to stay at the railway station and wait for Linzhan. Ahmam had fallen asleep in a seat. She awoke to an old man begging for money to pay his cab fare. Ahmam told him she only had enough money for her own ticket back home. The forlorn man stared at her unconvinced. He shouted, “unsympathetic!” Ahmam ignored his comment; she was not in the mood to care what people thought about her. As she checked her purse to find coins for the pay phone, two ten-dollar coins dropped from her purse. The old man rushed to pick them up as they started to roll on the floor. Ahmam shook her head. She went to a pay phone and dialed Linzhan’s number again. His little brother answered again saying Linzhan was still not back, he promised to pass on her message. As she hung up Ahmam felt like she was drifting, just like the old beggar. He appeared to be chewing some meat in a bun. He had it bought with Ahmam’s money. The smell of his food attracted a stray dog. He lowered the bun to entice the dog, as the dog happily approached the bun, the man threw the bun into his own mouth and looked at the destitute dog triumphantly. Ahmam swallowed. She felt sick about her own situation. Ahmam tried calling again, this time she finally got Linzhan. Ahmam suspected that he was slightly drunk.
“Can I see you now?”
“…Maybe we shouldn’t.”
Ahmam panicked. “Why? You said I was welcome to come.” In the moment during Linzhan’s silence, Ahmam heard the pay phone taking her coins one by one.
“We haven’t been separated long enough.”
“Three years is not long enough? How long will be enough?”
There was silence again. Ahmam had almost run out of coins.
“I need to borrow some money.” She said quickly.
Linzhan replied just as quickly. “No problem. How much do you need?”
Ahmam waited a moment and said, ”eighty thousand dollars.”
“I will wire it to you tomorrow.”
“I will pay you back in installments.”
“No hurry. Just…don’t use it to invest in movies; you can’t make a living in that business.”
The pay phone started beeping to warn that there were only seconds left. Ahmam gave Linzhan her bank account information quickly and then the conversation was over. Her trip put to an end. It was not that late when she hung up the phone. She found of all the money she had left, she was now twenty dollars short for a ticket back home. Ahmam loitered in the station, debating whether she should call Linzhan again. The homeless man was about to fall asleep in a corner of the station floor. Seeing that she was still hanging around, he asked, “Did you run away from home?” Ahmam shook her head. “No, I do not have enough money for a ticket back home, she replied sadly. The old man loosened a bag he had tied at his waist and opened a series of knots. He gave her back the twenty dollars she had lost, she thought, “Don’t be fooled again.” Ahmam took the last train back to Taipei. On the ride back, she realized that Linzhan’s initial welcoming words were out of courtesy while answering phone calls for his family business. She was so stupid not to know that. Miss Chang was Linzhan’s classmate. Ahmam had met her many times and felt Chang had threatened her relationship with Linzhan. Ahmam once tore up a picture of Linzhan and Chang together; now she understood that what she had torn apart was her own relationship with Linzhan.
Lin Jinju did not speak to her until she showed her the bank statement that proved she had paid off her debt. She knew that her mother’s two hours of scolding was out of disappointment and frustration. She worked in the fields before dawn ever day, picking vegetables with her own hands and taking them to the market to sell. She never failed to pay Ahmam’s tuition and was very sad that Ahmam just wasted the money. Ahmam did not think what she had done was wrong; she knew if she never tried her best to save her love, she’d regret it till her death. The time with a lover was priceless and she would choose to do it all over again if she was given another chance.
Ahmam was taking a nap in Lin Jinju’s bedroom; it was a narrow, murky place. The ridge of the structure was held up a by a big bamboo trunk, and on the white plastered wall was a plaque inscribed with “Two Hearts Knotted Together Forever.” Ahmam was told this plaque was Lin Jinju’s only dowry. Ahmam’s parents did not even have any wedding photos. Lin Jinju’s memories of it had faded away. Every time Ahmam asked what her wedding was like, she always said: “I remember nothing.” It took me twenty minutes to walk from my old home to my new one. When I arrived, your grandma didn’t even lift her head to look at me. She was sent in a sedan chair; I was not as lucky as she was. My mother-in-law was already a grandma at the age I am now. I still have nothing from my kids.” Ahmam still remembered her mother’s complaint from many years ago when all her brothers were still single. Ahmam leaned across her mother’s cinnamon-colored bed; she remembered that she forgot to tell Lin Jinju she had met the honey vendor. Ahmam looked across the window facing north, the seventy-year-old windowsill was decorated with broken pieces of ceramic urns, now so dilapidated. Outside the window, tree branches weaved creating a complex scene at the far end of her perspective. Drifting in obscure thoughts, Ahmam felt a pair of senile hands holding her. They belonged to a sad soul that was in tears; they seemed to open the door of Ahmam’s soul and enter her memories.