Maps and Mirrors
It was the end of a warm spring day. The sky was soft like pink candy. The chores were done and the evening had not yet begun. There was no sound other than the grandmother’s heavy sighs upon the wind.
The little girl had just returned from the river with a large basket of dried leaves weighed down by heated stones baked over a small open fire that the grandmother had showed her how to make earlier that morning. The little girl stood for a moment at the open door with the basket at her bare feet. Had she left anything behind? Had she put out the fire like the grandmother had taught her? Had she remembered to pour water over the fire until the hissing stopped? Had she remembered not to bury the fire so that the embers wouldn’t secretly smolder and burn everything from surface to root? Had she remembered to wait until everything was cold to the touch before she walked away?
“A fire is not something to be stingy with. You have to tend to it,” the grandmother instructed, “to watch over it. Don’t walk away until the last spark has turned to dust.”
“What if the fire is too big?” the little girl asked.
“Never start a fire you can’t put out,” the grandmother said.
The little girl turned to walk back to the river but heard the grandmother’s voice and walked towards the sounds.
The girl and the grandmother passed their days quietly together. Their house was a wood-framed structure with two large doors that faced each other, one leading out the front down to the river, and another leading out the back and into the forest. In the stifling heat of the summer months, they would lie on the floor with the doors propped open with an old pair of boots and let the breeze lull them both gently to sleep. The large room was where they ate and did most everything. The other room, smaller and to the rear, was their tiny bedroom with a round window that had no curtain and didn’t open. But sometimes, when the light shone through at just the right angle, if the little girl tilted her head from side to side just slowly enough, the reflected light would make the window wink at her. She didn’t know who built the house, but she could not remember a time when she was not living in it with the grandmother. It was only the two of them, it was only ever the two of them.
Evenings after the work had been done, the grandmother liked to sit on a worn wooden recliner on the front porch and smoke sweet tobacco in a short wooden pipe with a golden tip. The porch had no floor and just an awning that looked as if the roof had had a growth spurt overnight and there hung the evidence: long, limbering pieces of timber of varying lengths slung over the front of the house. There were no fences around their house, no borders, no shapes cutting into the sky. Theirs was a geography without lines. The grandmother’s recliner sat upon the warm grass. Its sunken feet had long since molded into nature’s living-room floor. Barefoot, the grandmother dug her thick toes into the earth, past the soft blades, down into the cool crunchy soil below, deep into the dirt’s damp darkness. She inhaled deeply from her pipe and let out a sigh so heavy that her toes gathered up bits of loose soil and rock as they clenched tightly together. The grandmother was tired, more tired than she had ever been but she kept her eyes open and on the water. Finally, her body relaxed and she closed her eyes. The little girl woke her with her soft footsteps in the grass.
She nodded at the little girl, who sat down beside her. The grandmother looked down at the little girl and put her hand on the little girl’s head, letting it rest there for a while. Her fingers stroked the girl’s coarse curly hair, rough and warm against her calloused palm, feeling for a groove here, a bump there, tracing the topography of the girl’s head like a map etched upon a tiny globe.
“The world is full of maps and mirrors,” the grandmother said.
“Where do the maps take me? What do the mirrors show me?” asked the girl.
“Directions and reflections,” the grandmother said.
The little girl didn’t know what the grandmother meant. She always found her way back to the house with the grandmother and she had never seen a map before.
“You have to learn how to not be lost by learning how to see, the difference between watching and waiting, between loss and lost,” the grandmother said.
“Can it be both?” the girl asked.
The little girl sat at the grandmother’s feet playing a game of jacks. Between her skinny legs, she had some rusty nails and a smooth gray stone that felt round and supple the way a ball might be in her hand. A black bird flew overhead and crowed but when the little girl looked up, the bird had already flown far away. The girl furrowed her brows and shaded her eyes with a cupped hand as she looked down at the water, the rippled surface like shiny crumpled paper, every wave a discarded message, every movement a secret, something important to remember.
But what was important? One moment could seem as important as any other and it was hard to be sure all the time because the grandmother was always going on and on about how it was important to remember this or to remember that. Remember to clean the house and burn my clothes. But what will you wear? Remember to cover the mirrors. But how will we see ourselves? Remember to leave a cup of wine and a piece of bread for visitors stopping by. But who will visit? Remember to cover the altar with red paper. But who will we pray to? Remember to place a silver coin in my mouth, behind the teeth and on top of the tongue. But won’t you choke on the taste of metal? Remember to always put out the fire but keep the oil burning for 100 days so that I can find my way home. But you are already home, how could you get lost?
The grandmother got up and went inside without saying a word to the little girl. She just nodded at the horizon, at the tiny dock, just beyond the water’s edge. The little girl didn’t know what the gesture meant, but she nodded back, mimicking the grandmother’s serious expression. She remained staring at the water, afraid to miss something important if she moved.
After a while, when it started getting difficult for the girl to see in the faint light, she got up to go inside the house. It was darker than usual because the oil lamp wasn’t lit, and it took her eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness before she could find a candle and some matches from the cupboard. Her hands fumbled with the matches and she dropped the box on the floor. After a couple of tries, the little girl managed to light the candle. She looked around the room and saw that the room was empty. In the center of the room, on the rectangular table sat three plates and three small bowls of translucent porcelain the color of ash and beside each bowl a pair of red lacquered chopsticks with carved rings encircling the tips.
Where were their wooden bowls and flat silver chopsticks? She was hungry. It was getting late and they hadn’t had supper yet. The hearth remained cool. The little girl walked into the small room behind the large cast iron stove. The only light in the room came from an oil lamp sitting on the two-drawer chest next to the rusty brass bed they rarely slept in because it made so much noise. Most nights when it wasn’t too cold, the grandmother and the little girl slept on a cot stuffed with dried leaves and scraps of old clothing in the front room where the rectangular table was now standing. In the early evenings, they would push the rectangular table aside and up against the wall. The grandmother would lay the cot on the floor with a smooth fluid motion while the little girl gathered the bed linens from the chest in the corner of the large room. They moved with purpose and without speaking.
But tonight, the grandmother was lying in the brass bed with an old embroidered quilt pulled all the way up to her chest even though it was a warm night. The grandmother never went to sleep before the little girl. Her body was still but her hands were laying on her bosom, her fingers twitching and pulling as if they were working out some incredible on an abacus. The grandmother was looking out the small circular window to the right side of the bed. As the little girl moved closer she noticed a long strand of shiny silver beads in the grandmother’s hands.
The little girl walked over to the grandmother and gently nudged her arm. But the grandmother did not move; only her hands remained in motion. Even though she had never uttered it before and could scarcely remember where she had heard it, she called the grandmother’s name. The little girl reached out and stroked the grandmother’s cheeks lightly, feeling for the warmth of her body. But the grandmother did not move. She just lay there staring out the window towards the east, into the bruised night sky. The girl felt a light chill even though it was a warm night. She climbed into the bed with the grandmother with her clothes still on even though this was usually not allowed. Something in the room had changed, the air a bit heavier, the little girl felt light-headed. She nestled herself into that cavernous area, that cozy spot right under the grandmother’s armpit, and fell asleep right away.
The little girl awoke in the morning with the sun in her eyes. She must have been asleep for a long time because her throat was dry as if she had been screaming, and she nearly choked trying to swallow. The grandmother had moved in the middle of the night. Her eyes were still open but her head had turned and she was staring at the foot of the bed with her mouth open. She looked as if she was about to shout, like when the little girl forgot to bring in the laundry before the rain or when she wandered too far from the house and the grandmother had to call her name again and again before she came running.
She whispered the grandmother’s name again, this time right into her ear as she had once when the little girl had had an earache and couldn’t hear for days and the grandmother blew tobacco smoke in her ear to clear out the bad stuff. But the grandmother still didn’t move or answer. And something in her face, the way her wide mouth was in mid-shout, made the little girl think that the grandmother was dreaming with her eyes open. And she knew not to wake someone when they were dreaming.
The grandmother’s hands were still now. The shiny beads were no longer in her hands but around the little girl’s neck.
The little girl was scared but she stayed still in that silence, hugging the grandmother for a long, long time. She tried to remember what to do, to remember what to say, so that the grandmother could find her way back home, back to where the water ends, back to the little girl waving from the edge.
But she couldn’t quiet her mind. After a while, she crawled out of bed gently, trying not to disturb the squeaky metal springs and wake the grandmother. She sat down on the floor and thought really hard, concentrating on the lines in the grandmother’s face, in her hands, trying, straining to remember the instructions. Directions and reflections, maps and mirrors. Who would show her how to read the signs?
The grandmother was dead, but this didn’t alarm the little girl. Once she had seen the grandmother pull a canvas bag out of the river, and when they opened it, there were four small kittens with watery eyes inside. Swollen and tangled, they smelled awful like spoiled seafood soup. But the grandmother did not smell.
No, it was the way that the grandmother’s eyes and mouth were open, in mid-motion, wide and expectant. This struck the little girl as funny. The grandmother looked watchful and restful at the same time, like she was waiting and already there. The little girl thought this was a rather clever way of being in two places at once, to be present and to be absent, to be alive and dead at the same time. It was a trick she would ask the grandmother to teach her as soon she found her way home again.
The girl walked over to the wooden chest at the foot of the bed and pulled out a bundle wrapped in butcher paper and tied with a red string. She opened the package slowly. There were two pairs of pajamas made from unbleached linen, one pair small enough to fit the little girl, and sheets of special thin red tissue paper that the grandmother would sometimes use to make little kites strung together with rice glue.
The girl undressed the grandmother deliberately, folded the clothes in a neat stack, and placed them on top of the wooden chest. She moved slowly and avoided the grandmother’s fixed gaze.
She started at the grandmother’s feet, cleaning in between the toes, and scraping underneath the toenails with her pinky nail. She scrubbed the bottoms of the feet, working over the ridge of her calloused heel in small circular motions.
Moving up the leg, her hands passing over the grandmother’s soft belly and getting deep into its fleshy folds. She used to fall asleep with her ear pressed against the grandmother’s belly, listening to the waves crashing and rumbling inside. Some water gathered and pooled in the belly button and the little girl bent down to stare into the tiny lake. There was no reflection staring back.
As she worked, the little girl’s hands began to relax and moved as if on their own. The storm inside her head hushed, passed.
She cleaned under the grandmother’s flattened breasts, over that soft spot in the crook of her arms, and down to her hands, knotted, firm, now motionless. She paused at the grandmother’s face for a long time, looking into her milky left eye, trying to read the swirls like mystical tea leaves.
Remember, so you won’t forget.
After some time, her head became heavy and the little girl’s eyes burned from forcing them to stay open. She studied the grandmother’s face, memorizing each line and curve, each peak and valley. The grandmother was here but far away. The little girl was here, had always been here and didn’t know how far far away really was. She did not want to leave the grandmother but she did not know how long to wait. She did not know when to go.
Finally, she dressed the grandmother in the starchy linens. The grandmother’s body heavy but not resistant, it bent and twisted for the little girl. She looked at the grandmother fully clothed and thought she looked like a very big corn stalk doll.
After she was done, the little girl covered the small hexagonal mirror in the corner of the room with the red tissue paper. Then, she went into the large room and covered the altar, a large bookcase of sorts with small figurines lined up neatly on the two shelves and a brass incense holder on each tier. She made sure to tuck the paper around the corners tightly so that no light could get in. Once the little girl was done, she sat down in the front room and stared out the door, wondering what was next.
It was well into the afternoon when she realized that she had not eaten since yesterday. She drank water from a cedar bucket in the kitchen and looked in the cupboards for something to eat. She found some fried sesame bread on a plate wrapped in cloth and she was sure that the grandmother had left it there for her to find. Once full, the little girl changed out of her clothes and into her matching linen pajamas. She packed a small sewing bag that belonged to the grandmother with some clothes, the wooden beads, and a celestial atlas that someone had left behind years ago. She removed a small pair of scissors from the bag at the last minute and slid them into her front pocket.
She carried the bag outside and walked back to the small room. She knelt down beside the grandmother and spoke slowly into her ear, telling the grandmother all the things that she did not know how to say. She pulled the pair of sewing scissors from her pocket and snipped off some of the grandmother’s hair, wrapped it in some red tissue paper and placed it in her pocket. She rubbed some butter between her fingers and massaged it onto the grandmother’s scalp gently, cautiously, taking care to not move the grandmother’s head, which was now facing the window again. She kissed the grandmother’s forehead and placed a shiny object into her mouth with one hand while closing her lips with the other. The grandmother was facing east again, staring blankly out the window. Had she moved the grandmother or had the grandmother moved? What was the grandmother watching for?
The grandmother’s body was too heavy to move, but the basket of dried leaves seemed lighter than yesterday. The little girl knew she was not allowed to play with matches inside the house but how was she going to start the fire? She thought to yesterday when the grandmother had her build the fire down by the river.
From the floor, the little girl worked with purpose and without sound. First, she removed the heavy stones from the basket and then she formed a rudimentary circle around the bed. Next, she placed the leaves in similar fashion all around the bed and poured the rest over the grandmother’s body, covering her in a blanket of eucalyptus. The thickness of its scent filled the room and made her dizzy and feel as though she might faint.
She spotted the pile of clothes on top of the wooden chest and remembered she was supposed to do something important with them but she couldn’t remember what. Was she supposed to take them with her so the grandmother could wear them when she returned?
The little girl got up and went into the large room. She was looking for something when her eyes fell upon the matches spread across the floor like jacks. She picked them up one by one with her fingertips, placing the matches in their box slowly as if they were made of fine paper, thin and translucent like the red tissue covering the altar and the mirrors. The room was already bathed in a muted fiery glow that made it unrecognizable to the little girl.
When she finished gathering the matches, the little girl stood and walked back towards the small room. She stood in the doorway, clutching the matches. Had she done everything? Somehow, she couldn’t help but feel as if she had forgotten something important. She lit a match but it blew out. She lit a second and threw it onto the pile of leaves but after a few seconds, it blew out. The little girl held her breath and lit two matches at once. The twin flame felt warm like the grandmother’s cheeks and as she exhaled the little girl threw the entire box of matches onto the pile of leaves. She was unsure what to do next when she heard a slight sound. The doors were open and she felt the wind whistling in her ear.
The room filled with the smell of eucalyptus and burning hair. It was bright like an unnaturally sunny day. The little girl reached out her hands in front of her face, the floating embers like fireflies on a summer night. Except she had no jar, no container big enough to keep everything in.
The heat was thickening. The little girl opened her mouth but no sound came out. It was getting hard to breathe. The leaves were almost all gone. The bed, the grandmother, the walls, everything in the room had lost its lines; there were only shapes melting into other shapes, until the room was blurry and without angles or sharp edges. The definition of everything melting into the atmosphere, until there was no more grandmother, no more room. And as the little girl’s tears steamed and evaporated into the thinning air, she forced herself to turn away and walk out the door before the fire was cold.
Samantha Tieu was born in Saigon and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a post-post-modern refugee without borders. They love dim-sum, Doritos, and Durian but not necessarily in that order. They received their MFA from the University of San Francisco and resides in Oakland, CA.