Story of You by Christine H. Chen
In her author’s note, Christine H. Chen describes “Story of You” as “one immense exhale of pain.” The piece distills a life into one breathless sentence—the narrator addresses her father in a wail of grief both for her loss after his death and for the multiple losses that her father experienced during his lifetime as he coped through the sacrifices of immigration and disability. In this piece, the narrator imagines her father first as a toddler, through his youthful story of migration and labor, to the tender moments that she experienced as his child, to his old age, and his final moments spent far away from the narrator, his only daughter. The one-sentence structure allows Chen to access the momentum of life rushing brutally forward while also including the unique and specific details that made the narrator’s father’s life his own. The piece is both a whirlwind and a distillation, a beautiful example of the power and art of brevity and compression, and most of all, a deeply vulnerable and tender examination of the ways we can never quite know or inhabit the experience of those whom we love the most. “Story of You” was a finalist for the 2021 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest. —CRAFT
When you were three years old, you climbed up your Ma’s massive mahogany bed, you poked her gently, then shoved, and when she still didn’t move, you tried to pry open her eyes with your fingers because you didn’t know what death was, then your Ba married his second woman who gave him three more sons to feed, leaving you hungry and unwashed, and when you turned thirteen, you saw the women in your village smear black coal on their faces and hide in pig manure because the Japanese came, they lined up the men and shot them, your Ba the first to fall, and all of a sudden you were twenty-three because your Dai-Bak had a passport made for you where he added ten more years to your age so the sailors at the port let you board the boat on its way to Madagascar where you disembarked in Tamatave months later, and with no time lost, you became apprentice grocer at your relative’s, a cousin of a cousin of a cousin, where there was no electricity, where you read books holding a flashlight under a blanket because your cousin of a cousin of a cousin thought reading was time wasted in daytime, you walked 213 kilometers north to bring back a sack of vanilla for him to sell and cheat the locals with rigged scale weights, and you sent money home to your stepmother, your stepbrothers, back in Guangzhou, so they could build a bigger house while you squatted and shat in a hole in Africa, and when you were thirty-three, you set up your own grocery store, bought and sold vanilla beans, coffee beans, other beans and goods, and you worked hard as foretold when born in the year of the Ox, worked until your eyesight dimmed, you woke up one day and saw shadows instead of colors, you were forty-three in real age, and your relatives told you to find a Malagasy woman to take care of you, but you longed for home, so you returned to find a world changed, no Japanese but Communists who questioned your loyalty to the Party while pushing their daughters in front of you, hoping you’d make a wife out of one of them so their daughter could escape overseas, but you preferred the fierce and proud twenty-two-year-old daughter of a fallen bourgeois family who begged you to take her away to save the family from falling into hunger, she was the oldest daughter of seven as you were the oldest son, both of you bound in duty, so you married her, moved to Hong Kong where your first and only child was born, and by then, you were officially blind, you never saw your daughter’s face, only felt the contour of her shape, the softness of her fine baby hair, you held her tight, afraid to let her go, afraid to lose her and her mother to the chaos of time, so you took your family back to the Red Island, where your cousin of a cousin of a cousin’s son had stolen your business, you trusted him, he sold you out, so your young wife who spoke not a word of French or Malagasy went to work while you raised your daughter at home, taught her how to count with jumbie beads, infused her with the love of books, of Stendhal and Balzac, the sound of Chopin’s Minute Waltz and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, everything you learned with your wits and your curious mind, and when your daughter was sick and feverish from malaria, you woke up in the middle of the night, pressed your forehead onto hers to check the temperature, tiptoed to the kitchen, touching the wall with your right hand to guide you throughout the house, and laid cold towels on her to stop the fever, you boiled hot water for her bath, and burned your hand, you left droplets of blood for her to find when she came home from school because you wanted to cut the chicken but sliced your finger instead, because you hoped to prepare dinner while her mother taught Cantonese to Chinese immigrant children to make a living and pay the bills, because you refused to be useless just because you were blind, you refused to walk with a cane but would rather trip and fall and get back up, everything you wished for, you gave it to your only daughter, you sent her to the French lycée where children of ambassadors attended, you paid for her piano lessons, a math and geometry tutor so she could excel in her exams and earn a scholarship to study in America so she could be freed of the burden you thought you were, so she could live a life richer than yours, find the happiness that eluded you, never perceiving she’d absorbed all your pain and your grief without telling you, never realizing she’d have given it all up if she knew she’d never see you again, she oceans away, absent from your side when you needed her the most, one day still here, your voice crackling at the end of a phone line, the next day, you were no more, all that is left is dust in an urn, and this is all your daughter can give you back.
CHRISTINE H. CHEN was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Madagascar before settling in Boston where she worked as a research chemist. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Boston in 100 Words, Tiny Molecules, Gone Lawn, The Pinch, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Gordon Square Review, Pidgeonholes, Cleaver, and other literary journals. Her work was longlisted in the June 2022 Bath Flash Fiction Award, and she is a recipient of the 2022 Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship. She occasionally tweets @ChristineHChen1.
Featured image by Jocelyn Morales courtesy of Unsplash