In May, I take some time off work to see my mother. Now that she’s living alone, I worry about how she’s adjusting. I fly from Houston to Beijing, take a train five hours north into the mountains, and then a bus for three more.
I notice the small changes each time I am back in my hometown. New fast food franchises replace the cold noodle houses I frequented as a child. There are more grocery stores and less outdoor markets. Fashion changes among the young and stylish, but the elderly dress as they always have. Modern life seeps into my hometown gradually. This time, what surprises me most is the standstill traffic on these narrow streets. It is as if everyone here has bought cars overnight.
I am exhausted when I arrive. My mother’s short gray hair mushrooms out over her ears. She looks like a little boy. I tell her that she needs a haircut. She offers me a bowl of freshly washed fruit. I check out the state of the apartment. It seems smaller. The rooms are cluttered with boxes and trunks of things she doesn’t need, items that belonged to my father. My mother has let all the ivies grow out of their pots. They are spreading along the floors and walls. The bathroom is overgrown with them. I tell her she needs to trim them all back or they will take over.
Squatting in the middle of the living room, my mother tweezes the last stubborn feathers out of a chicken in a shiny silver bowl. I lay down some newspaper and help her prepare the vegetables that go with the chicken for dinner. We eat at the fold-out table in front of the TV. A war drama about the Japanese invasion is playing on the only channel that my mother watches. It broadcasts reruns of war dramas all day long. My mother chews with her mouth open. She has weak teeth. I tell her that she needs to go to the dentist to get them fixed.
My mother goes out to the balcony to smoke after dinner. With her cigarette in hand, she gestures toward the other side of the river where new luxury apartment buildings gleam in the dark. There used to be nothing but old abandoned farmland where they stand.
My father purchased a unit out there four years ago before any construction had begun. He was told it would be like living in the townhouses of the west, with lawns and palms and only one neighbor sharing your walls instead of a dozen. My father checked on its progress impatiently up until he got sick. The last time I saw the unit, it was still unfinished. The construction workers, who had once been farmers, dried vegetables and mushrooms on beds made of reeds in the open spaces that got sun.
“Our unit has been ready for several months,” my mother says.
“How come you didn’t tell me?” I say.
“Your uncle moved some furniture over,” my mother says, “and I put up some curtains, but I can’t move in.
Something doesn’t feel right.” She hesitates before adding, “There is a ghost.”
“Is this about Dad?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “No,” she says. “A total stranger. A young man.”
“How could that be?” I ask. “The apartment is brand new.” I try not to look too skeptical or worried for my mother’s sake. She’s been through a lot. I don’t want her to be like the other old ladies in this town who have a hard time with their children gone and nothing to do.
“I’ll show you tomorrow,” my mother says. “You’ll see.”
I leave her smoking on the balcony and go to bed early. The quiet here keeps me up. It has a lonely quality.
After breakfast, my mother and I walk over to the new apartment complex on the other side of the river. To get there, we pass the center of town. At this hour, the streets are already full of cars.
“There are so many more cars here than before,” I say.
“The government changed some laws. They’ve become more affordable,” my mother says. “Your uncle recently bought one. He’s still learning how to use it.”
“But the town is so small,” I say.
“People want to improve their lives,” my mother says.
We walk among children in tracksuit uniforms on their way to school and gray-haired ladies wearing floral print tops on the way to the market. We pass vendors selling their wares and pensioners gambling over games of cards.
Once we cross the bridge to the other side of the river, the atmosphere changes. It is eerily quiet. The newly paved streets are clean. There are empty buildings that might one day become stores, schools, or offices. The townhouses are square and white with lots of windows. A few short shrubs and peony beds are planted haphazardly in front of them. Evenly spaced baby Gingko trees line the sidewalks. The development is all part of a future housing initiative, anticipating population growth. It reminds me a little bit of suburban America, except it’s already a ghost town.
“Just you wait,” my mother says. “These streets will fill up over time. Everyone aims for a better life.”
A young couple is having a move-in ceremony for their townhome across the street from our unit. They drive a black BMW. Their extended family gathers around the entryway for pictures and then proceeds to light firecrackers. They have two white shih tzus that bark anxiously at the noise.
“Maybe the fireworks will scare off the ghost,” my mother says. She fumbles around in her pocket for the key and then unlocks the door to our new place.
Light fills the townhouse. Because of the open floor plan, the rooms seem unbelievably spacious. The floors gleam, dustless. The living room is furnished with a slippery L-shaped couch, a television, and a mahjong table with an electronic shuffler. The accent wall separating the living room from the master bedroom is covered in gold wallpaper with a pattern of koi fish that shimmers in the sunlight. There is a small balcony on the second story that is big enough for plants. I can hear my mother gnash her teeth as she follows me through the rooms.
“It’s wonderful,” I say.
She nods slightly, her jaw still churning.
Then I hear the wailing. It grows louder in intensity.
It comes from the spare bedroom. The vibrant floral patterned curtains are drawn across all the windows making it darker than the rest of the house. They are cut from a heavy, thick fabric that doesn’t let the sunlight through.
The ghost is a glowing lump behind the curtains, howling, disconsolate. They lift and shake with his movements. I peer behind them to see the ghost’s pale face. He has hollow cheeks, wrinkles around his eyes, sun-cracked lips. He is wearing an ill-fitting, thin suit. He could be young or old, I can’t tell. He reminds me of a farmer.
The ghost mumbles between sobs. As he struggles to speak, he reminds me of this recurring dream I have where I am standing before a mysterious figure in a mysterious place, going mad from not being able to make myself coherent. In my dreams, my lips can’t form words no matter how hard I try.
I think I hear the ghost say “shan cai,” mountain vegetables. His hands clutch at the edge of the curtains. His nails are dead and black, his hands gnarled and bony. His shoes are cloth, black and thin-soled. I hear him moan it again, mountain vegetables, with more force.
“Let’s get going,” my mother whispers. “We don’t want to make him angry.” She pushes me out of the apartment and exits right behind me.
“Now you’ve seen it too,” she says.
“What should we do?” I say.
She shrugs. “What can we do?”
“Why don’t we go get him mountain vegetables?” I suggest.
“But we don’t know him,” my mother says.
“If we do what he wants,” I say, “he might leave.”
Untitled Photograph - Amy Badgett Beck
The mountain vegetable market has been around for a long time, since before I was born. It has been a long time since my mother and I have been to it. We have to ask around to figure out where it is this year. “Just outside the hospital,” someone tells us, “on the south end of town.”
This time of the year, the mountains surrounding our town burst into a verdant green. It is the prime time for foraging wild vegetables. People sell what they’ve picked in the outdoor market at the edge of town. At their stations, they sort through their heaps of vegetables wet from dew, bundling them into bunches with dry reeds. They are still dressed for the early morning forage, wearing quilted tops and wool pants. They shout out the types of wild vegetables they have by their colloquial names: big-leafed celery, cat claws, monkey legs, red monkey legs, and dragon beards. We purchase a little bit of each.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this for a total stranger,” my mother says.
My mother and I bring the mountain vegetables back to the townhouse. We set them before the bump in the curtains. The ghost stretches out his hands, grabs a handful, and shakes the bundle roughly. The loose leaves and roots and soil fall onto the clean floor. Then he sets them down and works his way through them quickly, picking out the bitter parts and the rot and gobbling down the flavorful bits. I can tell that the ghost knows these plants intimately. He uses some shapes that have dropped to the floor—the curl of the monkey leg, the buds of the dragon beard, the thin and thick stalks of big-leafed celery—to form one character: “Zhou”
“Zhou,” I say. “That is your surname.”
He nods. Then he reshapes the bits of mountain vegetables into characters for our hometown.
“Yes,” I say. “You are here.”
He looks confused, lost. He must have lived on this piece of land long ago, when things looked very different. He begins wailing again.
I want to show him the view from the balcony so I can point out the familiar slope of the mountains and the bend in the river, but he refuses to leave the safety of the curtains. My mother helps me detach the curtain from the rod. It falls on top of his shape. I cut eye holes for him and lead him out to the balcony as my mother sweeps up the mess he’s made. Seeing the landmarks, he calms down a bit. Then he lets out a slow waaaa of astonishment when he notices all the cars in the distance.
“Yes, they’re everywhere now,” I say. I point down at the neighbor’s BMW. “That’s a very nice one,” I add.
His eyes glow behind his eye holes like a young boy’s. I realize that he is not that old.
“Why are you here?” I ask. “What else can we do for you?”
His eyes remain glued on the BMW.
“Do you want to be in one of those?” I say.
Mr. Zhou nods.
“Will you leave my mother alone if I take you for a drive?” I ask.
Mr. Zhou nods again.
“Tomorrow,” I say. “We’ll do it tomorrow. I have to go now.”
Mr. Zhou starts up his wailing again as my mother and I leave the new townhouse. She keeps erasing our tracks from behind us. “We don’t want him to follow us home,” she says. She’s always been distrustful of strangers.
We cross back over the river and go up four stories of concrete stairs to get to the apartment. I study the dirty walls in the stairway. They are covered in phone numbers written by people looking to make money. They write in black marker directly onto the surface listing the services they could provide like gas, electric, and plumbing. I think about all the things that I’ve nagged my mother to do that she won’t do.
My mother gets to work cooking the mountain vegetables that Mr. Zhou did not take. We will be eating them for days. Depending on the type, some are best steamed and dipped in sauce while others are best folded into dumplings. My mother starts to roll out some flour for the skins. The truth is that I never liked mountain vegetables much.
We eat at the fold-out table and watch another war drama. In between the episodes, there are twenty minute long commercials for eye medication.
“I have made a deal with Mr. Zhou,” I say, “to get him out of the apartment.” I tell her that Mr. Zhou is fond of cars and that I will take him on a drive.
My mother churns her teeth. “Ridiculous,” she says.
“We have to appease him,” I say, “or he won’t leave.”
My mother sighs deeply. “Fine,” she says, “but I’m coming with you.”
My uncle’s car is several years old. It is a silver Dongfeng. He’s hung red talismans on the rear view mirror, for protection. He purchased the car secondhand from a friend of a friend who upgraded to a German car. My mother has a spare key to it. Because we don’t want him to know what we’re up to, we sneak it out of the garage late at night.
At the townhouse, Mr. Zhou is waiting for us in his room, dressed in his floral print curtain. I lead him out to the car, and I open the passenger door. My mother hops into the back.
I drive us out of town toward the mountains, where there are less people on the road. Mr. Zhou watches everything I do. I point at all the features of the car—the steering wheel, the clutch, the gears, the gas, the brake. I show him what to do with the clutch and the pedals, how to shift gears depending on his speed, and how to reverse. I take a deep breath and try something that I think might work.
I stop the car. “It isn’t very different from driving a tractor,” I say. Then, we switch places.
Over the next few midnights, I teach Mr. Zhou how to drive with my mother in the backseat. He strikes me as a perfectionist. At first he stalls all the time, and we lurch about in the vehicle. My mother curses under her breath, rolls her eyes. He howls at his mistakes, but he doesn’t give up. He gets better. On the third night, he drives past one mountain village after the next without messing up. They are much smaller and really haven’t changed in appearance. People still live in traditional flat houses.
Suddenly, my mother shouts from the backseat, “This is my hometown.” I almost hadn’t realized. She says it proudly. It had once served as a model village for other parts of the country. When we try to find the house she grew up in, we realize that it is gone. There is a great mud pit where she remembers it standing.
“Oh well,” my mother says. “It was too long ago.”
As Mr. Zhou drives us back, my mother is silent most of the way. Then, just as we are about to turn onto the street that leads to the new development, she grabs tightly onto the backs of our seats and pulls herself forward. She tells Mr. Zhou about how she lit her father’s pipe for him every night when she was a young girl, taking a few puffs before handing it over to him. She tells him about how the neighborhood children played all kinds of games with the boiled-clean knee bones of slaughtered goats.
“It was simple pleasures back then,” she says with a sigh. Mr. Zhou nods and laughs. He has a good laugh. It reverberates in my body.
“I can’t believe I’m going on like this to a total stranger,” she adds, “but I know your name now. You’re Little Zhou. You’re doing very well.” My mother doesn’t know how to drive either. Her generation grew too old to drive just as cars became accessible. My father lusted after cars all his life. In this way, Mr. Zhou reminds me of him.
After our lessons, I think that Mr. Zhou is ready to drive in the daytime, in real traffic. It would be a true test of his skills. He has become more calm and confident behind the wheel, less prone to howling. We sneak my uncle’s car out around lunchtime. It is a Saturday. My mother sits in her usual place in the back. It is lìu lìu, June 6th. This sounds like líu líu, smooth smooth. It is a very propitious day for all the things that one wants to go smoothly—births, entrance exams, marriage. Transitions. On this day, for as long as I can remember, there are weddings and celebrations at every restaurant and hotel in town. As the fireworks go off one by one, we watch from inside the car. They are so loud, our ears ring. The air fills with smoke. Crowds of people walk between the cars when the light changes. The traffic is horrible. Used up firecracker paper turn the streets into red rivers. Mr. Zhou stops and starts the car correctly, never once stalling. His bony fingers dance on the steering wheel. He is happy, moving—finally—toward the satisfying heart of things. I see that his hands are turning more and more transparent as he makes his way to the center of town. When the curtain over his body crumples into a pile on the driver’s seat, we know that he is gone. I look through the rearview mirror and see that my mother’s face is wet with tears.
return to ISSUE THREE