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This blog was featured on 06/18/2019
Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune: An Excerpt
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
June 2019
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
June 2019

This excerpt is from our guest editor Roselle Lim's novel Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune

Chapter One

A horned lark perched on the concrete balcony outside my window, framed against the colorful paifang of Montreal’s Chinatown. Ma-ma, who shared my love of birds, would have gasped at the sight of it. It was so still, I could study it closely: in the morning sun of steamy hot July, the smudge of gold on its throat seemed to have been created by a paint-dipped fingertip, and the dark markings along its collar, cheek, and crown inked by a calligraphy brush.

            The lark stared back, its tiny, black eyes studying me before it serenaded me. The melody transitioned from an ordinary song to one that was haunting and familiar: “Sono andati?”

            My admiration of the feathered visitor turned to dread. Every person had a song humming under their skin to the beat of their heart. “Sono andati?” was my mother’s. The only reason I’d hear it now was if . . . I lurched to my feet and shooed the messenger from my ledge before turning my back on the window, refusing to listen.

            The rain came once my feathered vocalist had departed. It echoed the same tune, pinging against the gutters and metal roof, imitating timpani drums instead of the robust strings and brass of an orchestra, delivering the meaning with tiny percussive notes I couldn’t ignore.

            Ma-ma was gone.

            Numbness traveled through my limbs, emanating from my heart, freezing me in place. Reeling from the loss of my mother, I could do nothing but stare out the window.

            I needed to go home to San Francisco. By the time I packed my bags and left for the airport, the melody had followed me into the interior of the taxi. The sputtering vents of the air conditioner complemented the dancing raindrops on the car roof. The aria played on ordinary surfaces, a constant impromptu performance only I could hear.

            The last time I heard this music had been on vinyl, spinning on an ancient turntable Ma-ma had once fished from a dusty flea market. Sesame oil sizzled in the air, popping out of a hot wok filled with stir-fried enoki mushrooms, mustard greens, baby bok choy, and strips of pork tenderloin. My mother had danced by the stove against snakes of smoke emanating from sticks of sandalwood incense stuck in nearby pots of ash. The scent filled our tiny Chinatown apartment.

            Ma-ma had always predicted some sort of curse would claim her. She subscribed to superstitions as if they were horoscopes—welcoming their vagueness instead of recognizing them as worthless generalities. She avoided the number four because it represented death and misfortune, while seeking out lucky eights. She made no important decisions on the fourth day of the month but postponed them until four days later, on the eighth. Once she had mentioned that she made sure she didn’t give birth to me on the fourth. I laughed when she told me. My birthday ended up on the seventh, a day short of her ideal date, seeing that Ma-ma could only control so much.

            It didn’t matter anymore, of course, because she was gone. What would I do now?

            I thought about calling Emilio, but I had burned that bridge a long time ago. Tears slid down my cheeks. Tiny crystals sang a sorrowful melody against my skin before trickling down into a glittering pile on my lap. I gathered them in my hands. Such was the beauty of sadness: it transformed the hollowness of the heart into something as precious as the loss it suffered.

            An unfamiliar number flashed across my phone’s screen. It came from a San Francisco area code. My past called to me.

            “Hello?” I asked.

            “Natalie? Natalie Tan?”

            I didn’t recognize the voice. My skin prickled. “Yes, it is.”

            “This is Celia Deng. You gave me your number before you left in case of emergency. I’m sorry to call under such circumstances, but it’s about Miranda.”

            Ma-ma. I knew why she was calling. A heavy weight sank to the bottom of my belly. Celia continued: “I don’t know how else to put it, but she passed away this morning. I’m so sorry. It was sudden.”

            Ma-ma was the only family I had left in this world, and we hadn’t spoken in years. As her daughter, I was expected to obey. By refusing, I’d caused an estrangement between us that was justified by our culture. She had called me a few times after I moved out. The conversations played like a broken record: a rehash of our arguments in the apartment, of two people talking over each other, not listening to what the other one was saying. After I left the country, the calls stopped. She must have realized that the miles between us represented the ones in our hearts.

            I had left San Francisco in anger, and as time passed, silence became a habit. All of my unspoken words to my mother now hovered in the air, swarming in swirls of black until I could no longer see through them. I slammed my eyes shut, unable to tell Celia that I knew and was already on my way to the airport. How could I explain that hearing Ma-ma’s song had already told me all I needed to know?

            “The entire neighborhood is shocked. It was so sudden. I spoke to your mother last night and she was fine. Well, as fine as she could be with her various ailments. We were watching our favorite K-drama and were considering what to order in next week.” Her voice went soft, lost in the memories she’d shared with Ma-ma. “I can’t believe she’s gone. I know you didn’t leave on good terms . . . but Miranda loved you very much. She spoke of you often and told me the sweetest stories.”

            Although I had no right to resent her for her closeness with Ma-ma, a tiny ball of jealousy curdled inside my chest, nestled inside the numbness. “I’m heading home now. I’ll take the next flight out.”

            “See you soon, Natalie.”

            I ended the call before I realized I hadn’t thanked her.

            I didn’t want to go back home, but there were Ma-ma’s affairs to settle—and what would I do with her apartment? I certainly couldn’t live in it.

            There was nothing left for me in San Francisco, no friends, no family. Our neighbors in Chinatown had known Ma-ma’s agoraphobia meant she couldn’t leave the apartment, yet when I was growing up they had never visited or offered aid. Even Celia, whom I’d left my number with, was a stranger. She’d always been my mother’s friend, not mine. My father had abandoned our family before I was born, so I was tasked with the sole responsibility of taking care of my homebound mother. While our neighbors’ indifference had taught me the valuable lesson of self-reliance, their inaction contributed to the heavy burden of responsibility I’d carried as a child.           

           They were content to remain bystanders while I had become a caged bird, first as Ma-ma’s helper, then her keeper. For as long as I could remember, my mother’s dark spells had been a part of her, as day coexisted with night. I loved her all the same, though my memories of those times held a certain fuzziness at the edges like that of an old afghan. When Ma-ma’s reservoir of sadness overflowed, she retreated to her bedroom: paralyzed, weak, speaking in endless whispers. I brought her cups of hot oolong. Food was ordered in until I was old enough to cook.

            I would sit by her side, stroking her dark hair, threading the inky strands through my small fingers. My mother’s cheek was smooth and decorated with rivers of tears. Nothing I did could banish the sadness, so I stayed with her, hoping my presence would ease her pain and that most of all, she would be reminded she was loved.

            And things would have remained this way if she’d accepted my desire to go to culinary school. But she’d adamantly denied me my heart’s wish, insisting on college instead. I didn’t need her permission to pursue my dreams, but I had wanted her support and blessing. I realized then that I had to leave and go out on my own. I couldn’t stand another day of fighting with her. She refused to acknowledge that I wanted a different path.

            It took me two years to save up fifteen thousand in tuition for the first year of culinary school in the city while working three jobs. The glorified closet I’d lived in still sucked up most of my income. Rent in San Francisco was steep, even with three roommates.

            When I started culinary school, I thought it would be easy, but the pressure of fulfilling my dream crushed me. Self-doubt suffocated me and made my hands shake. I ended up failing all of my courses, and I’d blamed Ma-ma.

            But I’d refused to return home in defeat. I’d used the opportunity to travel, something I was deprived of while caring for my agoraphobic mother. I decided to go around the world and find a culinary education through other means. My dream had always been to open my own restaurant, and I couldn’t competently do this without learning more first.

            And so I’d traveled, funding my journeys with the humility to work any menial job. One stint as a painter had had me dangling off the side of a building in Prague as the strings and woodwind section of an orchestra practiced in the courtyard below. As a dishwasher in Cairo, I’d snuck off into the night for a ride in the desert to see the Pyramids. My peripatetic lifestyle hadn’t allowed me to make many friends, but the practical education I’d received from working in kitchens was invaluable. I hadn’t achieved my original plan of getting a degree in culinary arts, but I’d successfully defied Ma-ma and learned just the same. However, my dream of running a restaurant remained unrealized.

            And now seven years had passed and Ma-ma was really gone.

            After I settled her affairs, nothing would tether me to San Francisco. Perhaps when all was done, I could return to traveling, but to where? Now that my mother was gone, the world suddenly didn’t hold as much allure as it once had.

            Despite our falling-out, I had lost the only person in this world I cared about. It had always been just the two of us. My grandmother, Qiao, died before my parents were married. My father was gone. Ma-ma and I had clung to each other for love and survival until I’d left.

            As strange as my mother had been with her quirks and superstitions, my memories of her and our time together were stitched into the thickest of blankets, ready whenever I needed comfort. And I needed it now.

            While I was gallivanting across the globe, my mother had died alone.

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