The Serpent’s Daughter
Every human being, like every machine, was created to do something. Trains carry people over land, under sea; a fan moves air; an iron presses cloth; a mug holds tea. Likewise, a nursing mother makes milk, a doctor sews skin, a tailor sews clothes, a spy watches people, a philosopher thinks, a judge makes decisions, and Sister Mah prays. She prays all day the way some people hum while they knit or chew gum while they’re taking your order.
We ate in a restaurant once. In the town where our post office box was. It was called Billie Jean’s. They cooked the food we asked for. In exchange we gave them money—something I rarely saw. We had very little. As Sister Mah put the light green portrait of Andrew Jackson on the table, I saw her lips quiver with what I read as regret. She’d never eaten at Billie Jean’s; I’d begged her to take me. She didn’t know the food would be awful. She probably suspected as much but wanted to grant me the exotic, albeit terrible-tasting, pleasure of eating in a restaurant. We bowed our heads and prayed before we ate. As soon as Mah was done eating, she started mumbling her regular prayers again, while I looked wistfully at the dessert menu. I thought: This person belongs in a convent and I don’t.
This person was created to pray and I wasn’t.
“Mah,” I say, interrupting her murmurs. If I want to say anything, I interrupt. “Can I ask you something?” Sometimes she crosses herself then looks up at me with our round green eyes. I feel at once grateful for her attention and stricken by the triviality of what I’m about to say. Though we’re just resting in our room on a Sunday, I feel I should have something bigger or better prepared. Something more worthy of her attention. “Where does the Serpent live?” I’ve found that using her name for him increases the chances she’ll answer my question. I feel like a traitor calling him that but I do it anyway.
“Orange Grove,” she says. I imagine their yellow house sitting in the middle of an orange grove, its windows open, its rooms smelling of oranges. I see him sitting at a picnic table on a patio, slicing an orange into eight pieces. Eight is the Chinese lucky number. I like to think of him making eights for good luck. Cutting his meat into eight pieces, taking eight steps down the hall, picking eight oranges at a time off the orange tree. There really is an orange tree in the backyard. She told me that once and I wrote it down under Things I Know About Ba. It’s a small but essential section of my notebook. I know there is just one tree. Still, I like to picture a grove of eight for good luck. We need luck, he and I, to find each other.
When I look at her to ask my next question, I see she is murmuring again. Her attention, like the tiny stained-glass window in the chapel’s cupola, has closed.
“What does he look like?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in seventeen years.”
I sigh loudly. “Mah, you know what I mean! What did he look like?”
“You know I don’t like to talk about the Serpent.”
She opens her desk drawer. For a moment I think she’s going to take out the picture of him and show it to me but she takes out a rosary instead. It’s her way of ending the conversation.
Before she can begin the Apostles’ Creed, I sit on her lap and the rosary slips out of her hand onto the floor. In a flash, I pounce on the sparkling blue spheres and hold them up over my head.
“Simone!” My mother yells my name, momentarily forgetting herself, forgetting the Sisters are within earshot.
“Just tell me what he looks like and I’ll remember. I promise I’ll never ask you again.”
“Jesus Christ, you’re worse than the devil himself.”
“What does he look like?” I ask again.
She stares out the window with her green eyes at the flowers. “He looked like you with brown skin. He looks like you. Is that what you want to hear?” But no one ever knows I’m Chinese! I want to yell back. Instead, I throw the rosary onto her desk and run down the hall, down the back stairs, out the back door, and into the woods.
“Do you have a picture,” I say. To ask would be bearing false witness because I’ve seen it before, mixed in with her things like a foreign stamp or a lost playing card. A black and white photograph, out of place but mixed in, a part belonging to a whole that exists elsewhere. When she goes to town in the truck, I go through her things. That’s when I see it. Now, a week later, she doesn’t say yes or no, doesn’t stop murmuring, but she hands it to me. I gasp like a child in the dark in front of a Christmas tree.
“Keep it in your drawer,” she says. “I don’t ever want to see it again. Do you hear me?”
I slide my desk drawer open and put the Serpent inside. Without looking at him. Without even a glance. I shut the drawer quickly to demonstrate my obedience and to keep her from changing her mind. The slim metal drawer is like a safe surrounding the picture, a barrier she will have to breach if she wants him back. If there were a lock on the drawer I would use it, but there isn’t. It doesn’t matter. She has given me everything. Eyes, nose, mouth, skin. The empty space in her desk where, for years, she kept the picture. The woods with its trail and its waterfall. Beyond that, the stream and its bridge.
Poet and fiction writer Jennifer Tseng was born in Indiana and raised in California by a first generation Chinese engineer and a third generation German American microbiologist. Her first book The Man With My Face (AAWW 2005) won the 2005 Asian American Writers' Workshop's National Poetry Manuscript Competition and a 2006 PEN American Center Open Book Award. Her second book Red Flower, White Flower (Marick Press 2013), winner of the Marick Press Poetry Prize, features Chinese translations by Mengying Han and Aaron Crippen, and her novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (Europa Editions 2015) was a finalist for the PEN Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and for the New England Book Award. MAYUMI is available in English, Italian, and Danish. Follow @TsengIsland on Twitter or Instagram.
Illustration by Amanda Tseng.