In my deepest soul, I secretly wished that Chun Chi really had killed my mother. This would be an unbreakable bond, our fates enmeshed, our lives inseparable.
I often dreamt that my true mother was standing at my door, tears like a fountain at night. I never opened the door, perhaps because to do so would be to betray Chun Chi. And so I never saw what my true mother looked like, but each time she appeared, the air filled with a distinctive floral scent.
After that, I stopped going to school when Chun Chi was at home, instead spending my days outside her door. Although she seldom left the house, she still attired herself with great care every morning, changing to evening dress when the sun went down — probably a habit acquired from her many years on the boat.
At times her door was ajar, and I could see her at her toilette. Needing no mirror, she stood at the window as she painted her brows, the first rays of sun just striking her face. She ran her fingers over her face, inch by inch until she found the corner of a brow, then dotted her brush at that point and carefully swept it across. Sometimes her fingers paused suddenly halfway across her skin, when they found a new wrinkle, which seemed an occasion of great sorrow.
When she was done, the windows and doors would be shut as she prepared to focus on her seashells.
At night, when the maid brought warm water, I dashed forward to take the wooden pail from her hands. This was the only way I could enter the bedroom. I knelt by Chun Chi, stirring the water till it was no longer scalding. Her feet were beautiful, firm and white as a young girl's, but the soles were scarlet. Auntie Lan said this colour would never be washed off, it was far too deep.
The red hurt my eyes. I looked but did not dare to touch. It was a strange feeling, not fear but reverence. I wondered where such a pair of feet could have walked, touching my finger to a red whorl. It must have bled a lot. Did it still hurt? Suddenly I felt my finger was not smooth enough, my rough skin might damage her. In panic I looked up at her face, but she did not seem startled at my touch.
Those bright feet were like trout in the water, twisting with their own life, hinting at a mysterious past. Clutching them in both hands, I could feel them breathe. Gradually, my palms grew warm.
Time passed in this manner without me noticing, until she abruptly wrinkled her brow and said in a hard little voice, "The water's cold."
I lifted her feet from the pail and wrapped those wet fish in a towel. "I'll change it," I said, flustered.
"No need." Her voice was icy.
Hurt, I left the room with the bucket.
Her room was full of wooden chests, each chest heaped with seashells, collected over many years. She worshipped them as other people do their ancestral tablets.
Her secret had something to do with these seashells. I wasn't curious, but I worried about her, for the pain it caused her. I knew she was lonely, and perhaps needed someone to unburden herself to. But how would I find a way into her heart?
Chun Chi held the seashell, its markings seeming to tangle with the lines on her palm. She brought her mouth close and murmured to it, and it moaned softly in response, like an animal she had tamed.
I hid behind the screen, fascinated by the soft words, like clammy air. I felt like I had when, as a child, I'd climbed onto the window sill and plucked away the thick ivy until I saw a bright corner of sky. The shell's response was like a nervous scatter of rain hitting the roof. The sound of flowing water was a river threading through my childhood, until I wanted to drown in it, become a slave to that sound.
As the shell grew warm, she stopped speaking and began tracing the surface of the shell, over and over, until it began spinning like a top. Her sensitive finger flicked against the whorls and grooves, harvesting something.
That afternoon, I woke up and slipped into the hall for a drink. Then I sneaked behind the screen with the gold filigree figures to spy on her.
She presided over a tableful of bright seashells, polished with a silk cloth till they glowed like coral, like a young girl's cheeks. My eyes still clouded by sleep, I thought I saw highly-coloured skulls, vibrating gently in the wind from who-knows-where. Her normally dry eyes were moist, like lighthouses dappling an inky sea. Only at times like this could I see her pupils clearly, so beautiful no one would think they were blind.
Her fingers extended, she brushed their little foreheads. She never touched me like that. I turned and ran back to my room. Back in bed, I shut my eyes tightly, using a corner of the purple silk curtain around my bed to carefully dab away my tears.
Once, I broke a fig conch she'd left drying in the courtyard, badly damaging its crest and outer lip. As punishment, she ordered me to kneel while I mended it. The early summer sun made me feel faint as the pain in my knees slowly spread. The thick white glue stuck my fingers to one another and the conch. Finally I passed out, drifting gently to the ground. I was thirteen years old then, and already taller than Chun Chi.
When I came to, I was still in the middle of the courtyard, my fingers still glued around the shell. It was a basin brimming with sunbeams, full of seeds about to spring into life, ready to burrow into my skin and grow. While I was unconscious, it seemed to have changed my blood, or melted into it. We became a single living creature. I no longer hated it.
I stuck the shell together as best I could, filling in the missing portions with plaster and coating it with glossy white paint. It sat on the table and I stood beside it, not daring to move. The fig conch, repaired, gleamed like a little pagoda. Chun Chi reached out and fondled it. Suddenly, she asked, "Don't you think this shell looks very like a human ear?"
I was overwhelmed. She had never sought my opinion before. "Yes, very like."
"Have you ever placed a seashell by your mouth and spoken to it?"
"Try. Whisper into it as you would an ear. It will answer."