William stepped off the plane and breathed in the warm, humid air. Tainan felt so different from Shanghai. The air here felt cleaner, purer. It felt like a memory.
He hadn’t told Mr. Chandler where he was going, but they both knew. Chandler had interrupted his study time only a week ago with an announcement that they would be moving to America—as soon as possible. William had made arrangements, then, for two different flights. One to LA for Mr. Chandler, himself, and Rainbows. Another for Mr. Butlers, alone, here.
To see his mother.
William could never decide if he loved or hated these visits to her hometown, the place where she had always felt happier, more at home. He felt a duty as the firstborn son to come here. To speak with her and reassure her. To tell her how the family was doing, to keep her company. He came at least twice a year, more if he could get away. He loved his mother and he loved how it made him feel spending time with her.
But he also struggled. He tried his best not to resent her for the things she had done. Because he was here, he worked and tried and got up every day and tried his best to be an honorable, kind, strong man.
But she had given up. She had chosen death over him.
William shook his head. How angry she would be to know these thoughts he had. So he pressed them down into himself—deep down with so many memories that he wished he could forget.
Perhaps that was why coming here felt so bittersweet—because here he remembered. He remembered the stories of how his mother and father had met, here in Tainan. During the war, so many families fled to Taiwan to avoid persecution from Mao Zedong’s Liberation Army. His father had tried to make it out to be like a vacation. Here in the warm sun, they had spent hours strolling gardens and the beach, enjoying the southern hospitality of Tainan City. He knew from his studies how scarce things really were, but he had loved the stories too much to pop any holes in them.
They had met in a market—at a flower stand. They had their eyes on the same bouquet of daisies, and their hands just barely grazed as they both reached for them. The stand owner had insisted on selling them to William’s father. As his mother bowed her head and began walking away, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around and found him holding out the bouquet. They had been nearly inseparable since then.
But there was a glitch in the story that William could never get past. It threw a dark cloud over not just the story—his entire life, it seemed.
It was that his father had been buying those flowers for another woman.
They had been for his fiancé.
William’s mother had willingly become the other woman in his life—a concubine. Her family tried to stop her. They had the money, they had the comfort they needed, why would she degrade herself needlessly? They were a well-known and established family here in Tainan. But she had followed his father after the war back to Shanghai and taken up residence on his compound. William had been born in shame. And yet his mother had still tried to convince him otherwise. He was his father’s firstborn. He was the one responsible—for so much. For holding up the family name, for impressing his father, for comforting his mother on the nights when he stopped coming to their house. The night he had his second son—his true firstborn son. The night William became something else. Something without a name.
He sighed. This was not the time to think of these things. He was here to pay his respects to his mother, not to hold on to what he could not change.
He felt a sense of relief when he arrived at the cemetery. It was a serene place. Always warm, without a cloud in the sky. He was glad to see the gardeners he had hired had placed fresh daisies on her tomb and kept any weeds from encroaching on her resting place. He sat on a warm stone bench, looking pensively past the tombstone, his eyes unfocused, drinking tea from a thermos.
“Mother, I just want to let you know that I won’t be coming to see you for a while. I am going to live in America with Mr. Chandler.” He paused. “He is becoming better and better all the time at fulfilling his duties. The Wang family is thriving with him as its captain. And Rainbows loves him.”
The daisies’ petals fluttered a bit as a breeze blew by.
“Would you like to hear about your great-granddaughter?” He smiled. “I am taking her with me so she has the opportunity to go to school there. Oh, mother. You would be so proud of her. She is a smart girl. Good head on her shoulders. I did my best raising her, but she is like a diamond. You cannot build a person with a soul so pure. I can take no credit. She reminds me very much of you.”
He stopped and drank from his thermos, watching the daisies on the ground. They occasionally moved a bit in the light breeze. He felt pensive. And strangely sad.
“Mother, I have been keeping a record. For Rainbows. I just… I do not know how to tell her everything. So I wrote it down. I am afraid to place such a burden on her. So I am waiting. I hope she will read it one day when I am… gone.”
The breeze stopped and William felt suddenly guilty. “I know that some things must be what they are. I know that we do not choose our fates. But if there is a way that I can ease her burden….” he sighed.
“I respect and honor you, Mother,” he said quietly. “I do not begrudge my fate. I enjoy protecting the family. I very much welcome the opportunity to take care of Mr. Chandler. I sometimes feel he is like my own son. But… I cannot pretend there are not times I wish there were simply… fewer secrets. There is so much of myself I cannot share with anyone but you. Please understand and do not be angry with me.”
With all of William’s studying and learning, he would be embarrassed if anyone knew how deeply and absolutely he believed in spirits. He knew his mother was here, and he found himself afraid of the repercussions of what he had said. But… he was not certain when he would be able to visit her again. He needed something. Closure. He paused and felt for something. He took another drink from his thermos, feeling the warmth of the tea and the light tickling of the breeze on his hair. And then he felt it.
Content. He suddenly felt something like peace. He could not explain it. But this, he felt, was how she spoke to him. And he thought she was telling him that it was all right. She wished the very same thing.
William smiled slightly and relaxed on the bench. He knew she liked when he would sit with her like this, like they did when he was a child. They used to sit and drink tea, watching the sun move across the sky. Occasionally they would play mahjong or he would tell her about his latest studies—Greek mythology, the history of Christianity, Norse legends, Latin—but often they would just sit.
His mother had what she called a “restless soul.” She would tell him that if she did not sit very still, her soul would bounce all over the place and she would never find any peace. He suggested she try reading. But she insisted it would be too much for her. Her soul was already pulled in so many directions. She wouldn’t want to stretch it to the breaking point.
He sat watching the sky, wondering if his mother had finally found that peace. An airplane flew past overhead and took him out of his reverie, and he noticed music playing nearby. It was a song his mother had loved. An old one, one based on prose by a famous Chinese writer, Su Shi. It was a sad song. He had never fully understood why she loved it so much. It had been written by a man sharing drinks with his friends—those that remained—after having been sabotaged by his political rivals, fallen out of favor in his official post in Imperial China, and narrowly escaped a death sentence. The woman’s voice came from speakers somewhere nearby, and the song had that tinny, grainy quality of an old record. Of his childhood.
“We may have sorrow or joy, be near or far apart
The moon may be dim or bright, wax or wane.
Since the beginning of time, it has always been this way.”
The song was wrapping up, and William sighed and closed his eyes, wondering what the next few months had in store for him, for the family. Chandler. Rainbows. Yuri.
“Though far apart, we still share the beauty of the moon,
William sat with his mother through the afternoon and until the sun went down. He had little to say—he didn’t need to say it, anyway. She knew how he cared, how he tried. She knew he loved and missed her and she knew that he forgave her. And now he thought maybe he understood, a little bit. Just a little bit.
LA looked a lot busier than it had the last time William had seen it. But he couldn’t place a finger on why—he just felt that way. Perhaps, he thought, lugging Chandler’s enormous suitcase from baggage claim, he was the one who had changed. He found himself less able to handle arduous tasks these days. Too many people made him tired.
He should really get more sleep.
William realized suddenly that he had lost sight of Chandler. A moment of panic passed quickly before he realized he was on his phone only a few yards away, pressed against the wall to avoid the throngs of people. Rainbows was watching William curiously.
“Grandfather, is everything all right?”
He nodded quickly. “Of course, Rainbows. Why don’t you go call us a driver?”
She gave him one last strange look and left, walking slowly.
He sighed. He was always on edge at airports. Of course, it was one more thing he didn’t feel the need to burden Rainbows with. But he could never forget the way he had felt that day, so many years ago, when he had promised himself to never let a single thing happen to his brother—to Chandler’s father, Li.
William’s father had asked him to look after his brother and never let him out of his sight on their way to study in England. William was holding Li’s hand at the Heathrow airport by baggage claim while their father was trying to get the luggage, but kept missing the bags. When William’s bag came by on the conveyer belt, he reached over to pull his luggage up and smiled at his father to show him that he’d gotten it. He still remembered the feeling of pride. The feeling of hope.
But instead of the praise—or whatever it was—that he had been hoping for, his father rushed over with a panicked, angry look on his face.
“Where is your brother?”
William faltered. He turned around and did not see Li.
“I told you William, never let him out of your sight!”
“I am sorry father. I didn’t know…. I was holding his hand when I reached over to pull out my luggage.”
“Where is he then? William… I should have known not to trust you. I was foolish to trust my concubine’s son!”
William backed away, feeling as small as a piece of dust in the corner. His father was shouting. People were turning to stare.
“I am sorry father, I will find him.” William felt his heart might beat out of his chest. “He is here. I know he is. I know I can find him.
William ran from his father, from the staring eyes, tears brimming at his own. He pushed through the people, looking for the yellow tennis shoes Li had been wearing. He found himself saying a silent prayer.
Oh god, please let me find him. I can’t afford not to…. Please… please….
He looked over the entire baggage claim area. No luck. He ran through people, falling down and scrambling back up, desperate. But Li was simply nowhere.
William’s stomach had fallen to the floor. He was going to have to tell his father. This was it.
But when he returned to the baggage area where his father had been standing, there he was. His brother, standing next to his father and smiling around like nothing was wrong.
“Where were you?” William had said, breathless. “We were worried sick.”
“I went to the bathroom,” Li said. “I tried to tell you but you just didn’t pay any attention to me.”
William couldn’t breathe. And his father didn’t say a word to him. As they left the airport, William trailed behind the other two a bit. He caught his reflection in the window.
His tie was askew and his jacket was wrinkled. He paused and looked at himself for a moment. It was exactly how he felt. How his father saw him.
That was when he promised himself that he would die before he let anything happen to his brother.
And that day, over thirty years later, when he had gotten the call… it was when he knew he had failed. When Li and his wife had disappeared in that accident. Here. In this very city. And William had helped Chandler get into his black Chinese robes, trying to explain to him what had happened without breaking his heart into pieces.
He had resolved that day to do with Chandler what he could never do with his brother, with his father. He would fulfill his duty. Chandler would be safe. He would be happy. He would trust William with all his might and soul.
And then maybe, someday, he would be able to forgive himself.