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Body Language by Tian Yi


Tian Yi’s short story “Body Language,” a finalist for the 2020 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize judged by Alexander Chee, beautifully portrays the relationship, oftentimes very delicate, between mother and daughter. There’s a strong resonance in this story—an emotional charge—deftly hitting notes and beats about family both familiar and new. With lovely language and imagery throughout (“We lay there, two small question marks, suspended in our uncertainty with each other.”), the story balances mystery, tone, and subtle tension all while a speculative current runs beneath the surface. Yi’s characters are well-drawn and the narrator has deep interiority. While the dialogue is very effective, so is the body language of the character who has lost her voice. Yi manages what is happening off the page (see the author’s note for more on “what we don’t say, and how we misunderstand others”) just as well as what we read here.  —CRAFT


 

My mother has become a shadow. I wake to find her leaning over me, a dark blur, the edges of her just visible in the thin morning light that filters into the tent. It feels early, but I can hear the cicadas singing outside. My mother is searching for something. She leaves clothes and bags strewn around the small space. It is difficult for her to hold onto things these days. She has to concentrate, or solid objects slip through her hands as if she is made of smoke.

“Ma,” I say. “Ma, stop it.”

My mother turns, I think. Her shape is indistinct as she reaches out and pats my sleeping bag. It could be reassurance. Her way of saying good morning, or telling me to go back to sleep.

“What are you looking for?”

My shadow-mother gathers up an object and withdraws before I can see what she has taken. Her speed surprises me. In the last few years I grew used to her complaints about her aching limbs and creaking joints. She hated any sign that she might be slowing down. My mother has never been patient with anyone, least of all herself.

“Ma?”

I pull on my boots and duck out of the tent. Silver ferns and nīkau palms give way to thicker beech forest around us; we are alone in the secluded campground. The sun is just breaking out above the trees. I shade my eyes, scanning the clearing for my mother, and notice a small area of flattened grass by the tent that marks where she slept. She no longer feels the cold. Even back at her house, she has chosen the porch and given me her bedroom.

I catch sight of movement at the edge of the clearing. My mother is there by the picnic benches. It is easier to see her when she moves into the light.

The grass is dewy, a soft shimmer underneath my feet as I walk over to her. When I look behind me, the flattened area is barely noticeable. My mother does not have much weight to her now.


Her voice was the last thing to go. By the time I’d travelled across the world to see her, she had already become a delicate, shroud-like figure who struggled with the door when I arrived. But she was still talking, her voice coming from somewhere in the darkness. She fussed about my journey, whether I’d slept on the plane, what I had eaten. The sound echoed oddly. If I didn’t look at her, she could have been at the bottom of a long stairwell, or across an empty hall.

Finally, she spread her arms in an unmistakable shrug. “You would have worried, Li Ling,” she said.

“Lily,” I said, automatically. I pressed the heels of my palms hard against my eyes. “And now? Am I allowed to worry now?”

“There’s no point worrying now.”

“No point?”

It was too unsettling to shout at this new mother. To see nothing where her serious, sharp features should be. I left the house again as soon as I could. I walked down half-familiar streets toward the harbour, pushing against a wind so strong that it threatened to lift me off my feet at every intersection. I had forgotten the wind could be like this in Wellington. It was getting late, and the sea, when I found it, was rough and threatening.

I took out my phone and sent a message to Clara.

Made it to New Zealand, might stay a while.

I started to write something else, but there wasn’t even a name for what I wanted to describe. Nothing official.

I stopped and deleted the words. Clara wouldn’t reply. She had been firm about her boundaries, and I had agreed to them when I left London. The latest messages in our chat were all mine: brief, meaningless reports from my journey. In Kerala now, it’s really hot. Or, Blue Mountains are pretty, here’s a photo. Very rarely, there were moments of weakness. Words I later regretted but couldn’t bear not to send. I love you. I miss you.

If only Clara had come with me. When I asked, she had already moved out, and it was far too late. I scrolled back to her last message. I don’t understand what you want, she’d written, months ago. I don’t think it’s me.

I walked along the road by the sea, my hood pulled up against the southerly. I walked until the sun set and the street lamps blinked on. The great, towering peaks of the Tararua range across the water slowly faded, melting into the night sky.


My mother reaches up and waves at me when I approach, her action mirroring the pale curls of steam rising from a pot on the table. She must have taken the stove from the tent. I hear the steady hiss of the gas burner under the rasping of the cicadas.

There is porridge bubbling gently in the pot. My mother does not eat now, and this is the first meal she has made for me since I arrived. I push away an abrupt and horrible urge to cry.

“Ma,” I say, unsteadily. “This is great.”

I savour every mouthful of the sweet, gluey porridge. I breathe deeply and concentrate on the fresh air, the sunlight on my back. It has been a long time since we last did this together. While I eat, my mother packs away the stove. She drops it twice in the process.

When I was younger, my mother was always the one who cooked, even before my father was ill. I grew up plump and content on her rich, cheesy pasta bakes, meaty stews topped with smooth mashed potato, and my favourite, zha jiang mian, the noodles mixed with a salty pork and egg sauce that we ate cold in the summer and steaming hot in the winter. She would cut up mounds of fruit from the weekend market and push overflowing bowls of the neat little cubes to me across the dining table. I used to complain that my friends’ mothers baked, and all I ever got was fruit.

After breakfast I take the tent apart, my mother hovering at my shoulder. It is the fifth time I am doing this. It is, all too soon, the last day of our hike. I have no idea what to do when we are back in the city.

The tent is old and bulky. I fold it as best I can and then pull the pegs from the ground. I wipe them on the damp grass. My mother does not try to help, but remains close. When I turn to snap at her, she gestures upwards, towards one of the tawa trees.

A bird is sitting there. Its white chest feathers are vivid against the leaves: a tūī. It chirps, and then makes a croaking noise, like something tapping and scraping against wood.

Songbirds have two voice boxes. The fact occurs to me suddenly. This is something my mother would have told me, but I can’t imagine when or how she might have said it.

We stand there together watching the tūī. It stirs and flits away, flashing iridescent for a moment in the sunlight.


I wasn’t surprised when my mother moved back to New Zealand, where she’d spent her teenage and university years. She’d always loved the outdoors, and worried about raising me in London, a place she said had too many cars and not enough trees. We got away when we could, to the New Forest, the Lake District, Snowdonia. But she seemed distracted on those holidays. Dissatisfied, somehow.

When she couldn’t take time off in the summer, she would pitch a tent in our small garden. The two of us would settle there with our books, me with the Roald Dahls I’d read at least ten times, the dog-eared copies cracked at the spines, my mother hidden behind thick volumes of history and politics. Our breaths and bodies warmed the small space as we lay head-to-toe in the dimming light. One night, I drifted off in the middle of The BFG. My mother’s hands woke me; I felt her taking the book, smoothing my hair, and zipping up my sleeping bag. I didn’t open my eyes. When I fell asleep again, I dreamed of adventures.

I knew, even then, that our nights in the garden were also a way to avoid my father. What I recall of him from those days—the sweetness of beer on his breath, how drinking made him laugh louder but shout louder too, the way he slammed doors and threw things, but only small objects, and never directly at us—is submerged beneath a clearer impression of the quiet, mild person he became after his diagnosis. But the old memories are still there, just under the surface, distorted as they are.

The first time Clara and I went camping, I woke in the morning with her tucked in behind me, one arm thrown over my waist. I held my breath while my heart thudded, very close to her hand. I didn’t dare move. We lay there, two small question marks, suspended in our uncertainty with each other.

After my father’s final round of chemotherapy, I told my mother about Clara in hesitant half-sentences. She grabbed my arm, waved at the closed door of the bedroom, and steered me downstairs.

“He’s already dying,” she whispered. “Don’t try and kill him faster.”

Her words stung like a slap. I had just begun to consider if my mother and Clara might get on, but in the end they never met.


We set off on the path that will take us over the hill to the main road. It is a slow day, as each day of our hike has been. My mother has a tendency to wander away. Sometimes she meanders off the trails of her own accord, and I wonder if she is following something she has seen. Sometimes the wind blows against her, forcing her back, or pushes her to one side, veering into the bush surrounding us. She usually catches up when I stop for a few minutes.

As I expected, my mother does not walk with me, but weaves her way through the trees. Her steps are light, twigs left unsnapped beneath her. I walk on ahead and imagine what she would say. Stop rushing. Wait for your mother.

“I wait,” I mutter. “You never wait.”

At lunchtime, I seat myself on a rock and pull out the last portion of my bread and cheese. A bird hops out of the bushes a few feet away, tipping its black and white tail for balance, bright-eyed and curious. I try to remember the Māori name for a fantail, but I can’t, and my first thought is to ask my mother before I remember that she can’t answer. In looking around, I realise that she has disappeared again. Although she doesn’t speak, the silence has a different quality when she is gone.

“Ma!” I shout.

Seagulls cry out somewhere in the distance. I wait for half an hour, then an hour. The sun slips behind the hill and the rock underneath me slowly cools. I think back to when we planned this hike, a few days after I arrived, and my mother told me she wouldn’t mind if she faded away out there in the bush. Her exact words were, a nice way to go.

That might be what happens next, but we can’t be sure, with only rumours to go on, hushed warnings and restrained appeals for help from those unused to receiving it.

As the tips of my fingers and my nose grow chilly, I find myself changing the plan with ease. I can finish the hike quickly on my own. I can pack in the evening and take an early flight out. I can be in South America in less than a day, with all this behind me. I think about it and wait to feel a sense of panic, or guilt, or grief. Nothing comes.

I lift my rucksack, and nearly drop it when my mother steps out from the trees in front of me.

“Thought you’d gone,” I say. I take a deep breath. “Like you wanted.” My mother spreads her arms. But here I am, she seems to say.


When I was eight or nine, my mother brought me to Wellington for a strange, sunny Christmas. We stayed for a while, longer than she said we would. One day, in the new year, we drove up the coast to visit a cousin of hers.

We stopped for lunch in a park by the beach. It was so windy that we stayed in the car, and I stretched out with my feet on her lap, dropping crumbs from my cheese pie. Later, we passed a town called Bulls.

“Auntie told us about this one, Ma!”

“This one what?”

We drove past a large plastic cow by the roadside, and then another. I bounced restlessly in the front seat.

“Look – the sign. It’s unbelieva-bull!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ma. Ma. What do you call a policeman in this town?”

“What?”

“A consta-bull!”

My mother sighed. “Stop leaning, I can’t see.”

I reached for the car radio and was quickly slapped away. My mother didn’t like distractions while she was driving. I slumped down for the rest of journey, resenting her for being no fun.

The rest of that visit was dull, too. My mother and her cousin spoke in rapid Chinese, in a dialect I couldn’t understand. I think they talked about her parents, whom I had never met. Her cousin tried to give me a red packet full of money when we left, her large hands tight around mine, but my mother protested. I don’t think we took it.

Nearly two decades later, the night before we set off on our hike, my shadow-mother asked me if I remembered our drive through Bulls. She insisted that I couldn’t possibly remember, and told me about the puns on the town signs.

“It’s very funny,” she explained.

“Sure,” I said.

“And you know, it has a sister city in England? Guess which city, Li Ling?”

“I don’t know, which?”

“Cowes!” she said, and laughed, as pleased as if she’d invented the joke. That was the night she lost her voice, and the last time I heard her laugh.


It is a short drive to Wellington. Every now and then I check the rearview mirror, and my mother is still there, lying low across the seats.

Back at my mother’s house, I avoid her. I unpack my rucksack. I shed my walking clothes and take a long shower. I stand in the stream of water that is almost too hot, letting it redden my skin. I stay until the room is filled with steam and I can barely see myself reaching for my towel.

When I emerge, my mother is sitting in the kitchen, tidying a pile of newspapers. The pages rustle as she sorts the papers one by one, careful not to let them float through her hands. She shifts slightly when I sit too. There is a burning behind my eyes, and my words, when they come, are desperate.

“We could still ask for help,” I say. “There might be time.”

I can’t tell if she is looking at me, but she spreads her shadow-arms again, as if to say, Never mind.

“We don’t know when it’ll happen,” I try. “We don’t really know anything.”

We have had this conversation. She refuses to go to the hospital. I leave the room before my tears spill over, and go outside to sit on the steps of the porch. I have managed not to smoke around my mother so far, but now I roll and light a cigarette and try not to shake.

I take out my phone.

The thing that’s happening, I write. It’s happened to my mother. Guess I’ll stay til she’s gone.

A few minutes later, the screen lights up.

Lily, Clara says, I’m so sorry. Come home when you can.

After months of silence, her message sends a rush of adrenaline through me, and my hands start to sweat. I read her words several times. I don’t know how to reply.

There is a movement behind me. My mother knocks the cigarette from between my lips before I register her presence. She shoves me on one side, or tries to. It feels more like a nudge.

I sigh and put my phone to one side, step on the cigarette.

My mother sits beside me and briefly puts a hand to my hair. Neither of us has ever been the hugging type. We sit on the porch together, unmoving under the stars and the endless empty spaces between them.

 


TIAN YI lives and works in London, where she is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Her short fiction has appeared in Visual Verse and The Fiction Pool. Her twitter is @tianyiwriting.

 

Author’s Note

It’s difficult to pinpoint how this story began, as my stories often come from multiple beginnings. Instead, here are some questions I asked myself in writing and editing: How do I write English dialogue for a character whose first language is not English, without resorting to stereotypes? What do we do when our parents seem to be our only connection to an entire country or culture? How can fiction capture the feeling of being split between languages, between continents, and between relationships?

Dialogue and dialect are tricky, slippery things. Like many writers, I’m interested in what we don’t say, and how we misunderstand others, especially when we are dealing with grief. I made Lily and her mother speak past each other, tangentially, sideways, never fully face-to-face. Because Lily has control of this story, she is also able to recreate or invent her mother’s words and fill her silences with meaning. I’ve wondered if Ma’s story would be very different, or if there might be surprising points of commonality, if I’d written from her perspective.

Recently, I was told that something I wrote was “almost anti-narrative”. I suspect this is a recurring theme for me. The structure of “Body Language” was an early decision, one that developed organically with Lily’s character, her hopes and her fears. Time passing, and people passing—these are frightening in their inevitability. Scary enough to make someone jeopardise a relationship, I think, or drop their responsibilities to go searching for comfort. It felt necessary for Lily to interrupt the progression of her story in the present by dwelling on memories of the past. Refusing a certain narrative, perhaps. Then again, I don’t think narrative has to be action-filled and forward-marching. We are always tangled up in our pasts.

“Body Language” could be read as a pandemic story, but I hope that’s one of many readings. I wrote the first couple of drafts in 2019, which feels like a very long time ago, and I don’t know if I could come up with the same story now. This isn’t any sort of conclusion, except to say that I’m still struggling to write in this post-COVID world, trying to rediscover joy in it, and wishing the very best to anyone feeling the same.

 


TIAN YI lives and works in London, where she is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Her short fiction has appeared in Visual Verse and The Fiction Pool. Her twitter is @tianyiwriting.