She (part I)

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    That freezing night in midwinter I had an unexpected call from a hospital emergency room. 

    Someone tried to speak to me. But the din of the crowd where she was drowned out her voice. So, she had to shout into the phone to let me know that my brother was now lying there in a coma. His speedy motorcycle had slid on the ice-covered street and accidentally crashed into Queensboro Bridge. He was found without his helmet and was not expected to survive due to his massive head injury. Through all sorts of background noises, she made every effort to give me the address of that hospital and hurriedly hung up.

     During what felt like an endles trip from Woodside to that hospital in midtown Manhattan, a snowstorm started. The taxi driver at first refused to go further, warning us that the street was too slippery, but I begged him and gave him extra fare to drive on. The world seemed to be hidden by the swirling white sheets of the blinding snow. The hazardous road looked deserted and forlorn. Even the flocks of the homeless who habitually took shelter on the street sidewalks were nowhere to be seen because of the fierce, icy wind. If there was a white hell, this must be it. 

    Yet in that warm taxicab, my mother still froze from her shock, her stiff-cold hand dropping weakly on mine like a slab of dead stone. Her ghastly look made me feel like I was riding with another corpse. 

   Halfway on this slow trip I watched her silent frigidness transform into an explosive lament. Her whole body began to shake with her loud, uncontrolled sobs while my own vacant eyes looked out seeing nothing. She must have thought I was still in  a state of denial. It was hard for her to understand that my brother’s sudden accident was the strangest event I had ever experienced, and I needed time to pick out the right feeling from the hundreds that formed a kaleidoscope of human emotions. 

    Maybe it was better to believe human feelings were limited to a few generic sensibilities—joy, sorrow, anger and fear. To my mother, all feelings came out from a heart in sharp, clear-cut like primary colors. They couldn’t be mixed on a palette to create a subtle new feeling sometimes so unique you found no name for it. To her and most people, a laugh is unthinkable while you cry. And once there is loss, life is impossible. 

    But that wasn’t for me, her eldest daughter. If something happened that I had to respond to, I needed to find the right feeling out of a tangle of them that twisted and twined together like cobwebs accumulated year after year in a dark attic in my heart where my buried secrets were kept. 

    The accident tonight all of a sudden had dragged me back to a particular part of my reminiscence—a memory where she had once roamed. 

    That flash of thought made my heart start pounding. When I was young, I used to pursue her in secret just for the chance to see her face. I’d almost made it. Just almost. Because I buried her unseen face, as years went by, deep in that dark attic hopefully for good. 

    Yet at this minute, that die-hard thought was now coming back. In half dread and yet half inward thrill, I wondered if it was time, at the heart of this hospital, that she would reveal her face, which for so many years I’d shrouded in mystery. Then, I suddenly shuddered and brushed off that forbidden thought. Perhaps it wasn’t me who started this, but herself, who had lured me into her cryptic yet irresistible enigma. And the reason I turned my back on her was I’d chosen my brother.

    In the emergency room’s waiting area, the crowd had thinned out in the wee hours, leaving us with a few people waiting in the nearly empty hall. We’d sat there through the night waiting for a medical team to rescue my brother. From time to time, I saw a few white-sheet-covered carts being wheeled past. My mother cried until she exhausted all her tears. So, she had no other choice but to grudgingly join me in watching some old-time comedy show on a TV set installed on the wall. A thoughtful worker had turned it on for us, hoping it would calm us down during this extended waiting period.     

    That old time TV show happened to be The Three Stooges, my mother’s favourite. I tried to focus on the TV screen to divert my mind from that stark reality. The scene opened in a small restaurant where Moh, the leader of the odd trio, and Larry, his buddy, were with their customer who was waiting for his baked chicken pie to be served. Suddenly, the kitchen door flew open and one big rooster scurried out. It then ran around that customer’s legs and took his legs for its refuge while Curly, the chef, was furiously chasing that poor fowl with his biggest, sharpest butcher knife in his hand. The knife missed that rooster and landed on the floor barely an inch from the customer’s foot. The show ended with that man freaking out and swooning on the floor, followed by deafening roars of belly laughs in the background.

    It was such a freaking hilarious show even some stone faces couldn’t help laughing their heads off. Too bad we were watching it at the wrong time. I wanted to steal a glance at my mother’s face while she was watching it, but felt I’d better spare her this most awkward moment. 

    Suddenly, she was startled by a doctor in a green scrubs walking up to us with a grave face. In his tired voice he started speaking to my mother. 

    Ma’am, I am sorry. We did try our best

    With his cold stare watching me putting all my effort to keep down my giggles, he asked us to follow him.

    Stop, stop now, I told myself over and over. I couldn’t brush off the funny scene of Curly scrambling in frantic to help his customer come out of his swoon while his living dinner was running around and crowing cock a doodle doo in triumph. I couldn’t believe I was carrying this scene into the room where the tragic death of my brother was being pronounced. 

    My mother had gotten away from this crisis in the most blameless way. After a swift glimpse at her son’s body lying flat on the bed, she uttered an explosive, heart-shattering wail and immediately passed out. Chaos followed. A team of nurses rushed in and carried her away to a treatment room. I didn’t want to be separated from her during this critical circumstance. But the staff insisted I should stay in the room so I wouldn’t be in their way while they tried to help her. 

    Well, at least her collapse temporarily helped shut off all the unbearable she couldn’t face. So, she left that obligation to me—to deal with his death—all alone and utterly unprepared. Oh God, that freaking rooster and its cock-a-doodle-doo kept running amok inside my head. I couldn’t throw it out of my mind.

    All the staff were leaving the room and let me stay alone with my brother for one last moment.                   

    I drew a deep breath as I peered down at the body they had assured me was my brother. That instant I was coming face to face with sheer terror as that freaking rooster vanished into the air. Here lay his soulless body on the bed. His bloodstained face was swollen beyond recognition. What shocked me most were his eyes. They were bulging so that in one strong shake, his eyeballs could fall out and dangle from the sockets while staring blankly back at me. Yet, the rest of his body, from his shoulders down, was unscathed. The accident had mostly impacted on his head and caused his whole face to look like a hybrid between human and balloon, the most horrid yet funny appearance. He looked more like an alien creature from some fantasy comic book he had loved to read. 

    I grabbed his hand with mine and shuddered. Oh God, I still felt some warmth in his hand. It meant his heart must have stopped just some minutes ago. The sudden impact, realizing his life would never come back, hit me fiercely I broke down, feeling a burst of tears flood down my face and onto the hand I was holding. 

    Hey, how dare you compare my face to E.T?  

    I believed I was hearing his voice hissing out of nowhere. No need to say how I felt. I clutched his hand more fiercely and felt as if we were young once more and loved to play together. 

    Yes, baby, it’s bothering me so much to see your face as puffy as a big balloon.

    I’ve known you all my life, Sis. I know what a mischievous girl you are. You are always planning something. I guess you’re now looking for a needle from the nurse’s syringe to pop and flatten my face. Leave my face alone, please

    That’s my brother—whether in life or in death. He loved making a joke to help distressed people laugh off their darkest mood as he was now making me smile through my tears. I just want you to look handsome forever, baby. I managed to stop sobbing, trying to smile up at him. I don’t want anyone in heaven to make fun of you as I know in my heart that you will go up there. 

    His voice suddenly fell into silence as I heard some of the staff returning. I turned my face to see them through blurred eyes. They said my mother still needed to rest. She was not ready to accept the death of her son let alone to see his body. So, they said it had to be me now to deal with all matters concerning his demise.  

   That was the moment I found the presence of her right behind the team.

    As my eyes met hers, she moved toward me in imposing silence, apparently without anyone’s notice. Her shadowy, vague figure became clearer, though still obscured in the familiar dark long cloak. She began to taunt me with her dark veil that concealed her face. 

    Slowly, slowly, she began to lift her veil. 

    My old terror was returning. So was a guilt that had tortured me for so long. Yet, all were coming with a frisson of my old thrill…

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