Meng Jin was born in Shanghai, China, and now lives in New York City where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at Hunter College. Her fiction has appeared in Bound Off and Drunk Monkeys, and is forthcoming in The Masters Review.
The Weeping Widow
The first time I saw the weeping widow was on Qingming Day, a few weeks before my mother left for America. Every family was out visiting their dead. Summer’s weeds had crept over the graves and autumn’s leaves littered the stone plots; now the snow was melting, and the sun licked away the frost by noon. My grandmother, uncles, Ahyi and I climbed up the mountain to my grandfather’s grave with brooms and baskets full of incense and offerings. Firecrackers cackled across the mountains in rounds of fading applause. Their red scraps covered the newly swept ground like thousands of exploded flowers.
A cry broke out over the din of the families at their graves, singular and sharp. I looked up. Above us, a woman was standing alone. The grave at her feet was so overgrown with weeds that the stone was hardly visible. The woman wore a white mourning dress with long billowing sleeves that had been stained gray and brown with dirt. She knelt before the grave. Wisps of gray hair hung over her face. The woman began to grab fistfuls of dried weeds with her bare hands, pulling them from the earth. As she ripped up the thorny stalks, she cried out, her voice cutting through the laughing echoes of firecrackers. She stopped when the plot was bare. The headstone rose up before her, lonely and gray. The woman dropped to her knees on the ground. Her hands, torn and bloodied, fell at her sides. Drops of red dotted the piles of yellowed weeds she had thrown to the ground.
I looked at Ahyi and then back at the woman. No one seemed to notice her. Ahyi had gone on scrubbing grandfather’s gravestone and putting out bowls of food. When she saw me watching the woman she stopped and turned my head away. My hands and my eyes stung. The sun was setting, and the incense we lit had burned low, bending over in drops of white ash. I raced down the mountain and led the way home.
The door to grandmother’s house was open. The high floral whistle of a woman’s voice rang out from inside. “Where’s my xiang xia daughter?” I ran past the gate and stopped in the doorway. A pretty woman was sitting on the wooden bench, rifling through her traveling bag. She looked up. It was my mother.
“Come on inside,” my mother said. “No need to be shy around your Ma-ma.”
She pulled a white dress from her bag and held it up by its shoulders, snapping it in the air to smooth out the wrinkles.
“Look at what Ma-ma brought for you.”
I hadn’t known that my mother was coming. I didn’t know much about her—only that she was a scientist in Shanghai, which was two long bus rides and a longer train ride from here. It was a trip that I had taken once, so long ago that all I remembered of it was Ahyi telling me not to stick my hands or head out of the windows, or a man with an axe would chop them off.
I walked towards my mother, carefully putting one foot in front of the other. My heart pounded in my ears. My mother was wearing a long sleeved black dress with a white floral print, and high-heeled shoes that would have sunk into the muddy mountain paths. Her lips were painted like candies.
She was even more beautiful than I remembered. The dress she brought me was made from a material I had never seen before. It looked like something out of a movie. I reached out to touch it.
“Aiya!” My mother grabbed my wrist and brought it to her face. The dress was gone, stowed back in the bag. “How did my daughter get so dirty? Come, let’s give you a bath first.”
“Hao le,” Ahyi said as she walked in. “She can have a bath after dinner.”
Grandmother and my uncles followed, calling greetings to my mother as they pulled off their boots and gloves.
Ahyi set her baskets by the door and walked to the kitchen, where I could hear her picking through the woodpile.
Grandmother said to me, “Have you greeted your mother yet?”
“Ma-ma hao,” I said, looking at the ground. I ran into the kitchen to find Ahyi.
The kitchen was the warmest room. In the corner was a cement stove where burning wood heated two iron woks and boiled water in the copper container between them. Behind the stove, my uncles had stacked up piles of wood. Vegetables and meat covered in wet cloth lined the wall. Ahyi and grandmother spent entire days there, wrapping dumplings or making tofu, warming their fingers over bowls of hot coal. When people from the village passed by looking for my grandmother, they knew to look there first.
Ahyi had started the fire and was fanning the oven. I pulled up a stool beside her.
“Do you remember the woman on the mountain?” I said. “The woman who was crying.”
She fed a fresh stick of wood to the flame.
“Who is she?”
“Some people call her the weeping widow,” she said.
Ahyi was often reluctant to talk about things. She would shake her head and ask why it was I wanted to know everything. But I knew that if I kept quiet she would go on.
“People say some strange things about her,” she said. “They say she lost her husband many years ago. They say that grief drove her so mad she forgot she had a son, who was only two years old. Well, I don’t know what to believe. But the facts are she once had a husband and a son, and now she doesn’t.”
“Does she live here?” I said. “I’ve never seen her before.”
“Don’t go bothering her, you hear?” Ahyi sighed and closed the metal flap of the oven. She turned to look at me, her elbows resting on her knees.
“She’s had a hard life.”
She opened the oven flap again, and with a shovel scooped out hot coals into a metal bowl. I thought of the weeping widow in her white dress, her bloody hands hanging at her sides. The sun had gone down and the air was frigid. I put my hands over the bowl of coals. Ahyi poured oil into the wok.
“Now go, bring that bowl to your ma. She’s got to be freezing in that dress of hers.”
Whenever my mother visited, the streets rustled with whispers. “Rumor mongers,” Ahyi said, “Counting up her cash.” Ahyi then disappeared. I’d find her in the kitchen scrubbing the woks or sorting out vegetables, but when I poked my head in she would run out to do something else. I followed my mother into the streets alone. My mother’s hands were smooth and white. They gripped mine tightly.
According to Ahyi, my mother had gotten pregnant with me too soon. She was just beginning her doctorate, and my father was leaving on a fellowship to America. My mother didn’t trust her clumsy country mother, my grandmother, to take care of me. Ahyi, my mother’s older sister, hadn’t finished high school and didn’t have anything else to do but work in the fields. My mother had said it would be a good chance for her to come to Shanghai and meet a rich man to marry. “Like she was doing me a favor!” Ahyi laughed. “Who will want to marry me when they see a child in my arms?”
Ahyi, my mother, and I lived in a one-room apartment in Shanghai until Ahyi couldn’t stand it anymore. Suffocated by the narrow, stinking streets, she packed up my diapers and told my mother that she was going back to Wantu. My mother hadn’t wanted me to go, but with her dissertation to finish, she had no choice.
My mother never stayed in Wantu for long. During her three or four day visits, she made the rounds to all of our relatives, stuffing red envelopes of cash in their hands and explaining how to take the Western medicines she’d brought from Shanghai. I sat silently beside her as she gossiped, nibbling on yam chips or some other treat, looking up and smiling when I heard my name. During one of the visits I heard my mother say that Ahyi had a simple face. I thought it was a compliment. Ahyi’s face was big and round like a plate, her cheeks always red as if they had just been pinched. Her skin was smooth and there were no wrinkles or shadows on it to hide secrets. “Men prefer a simple wife,” my mother said.
On the walk back to grandmother’s house, my mother and I passed the weeping widow. The widow stared at us, her head tilted and her eyes curious, and my mother pulled me into her side. “I remember that woman,” she said when we turned the corner. “She’s a madwoman who killed her own child. The grown-ups used to tell us that if we stayed out after dark, she would mistake us for her child and snatch us away. I thought she must have died by now.” My mother quickened her pace. “You stay away from her,” she said.
My mother was the first person from Wantu to go to America. In the months after her Qingming visit she was talked about so often that even her absence was inescapable. Whenever someone saw me, they would ask after her—“Is your ma in Mei Guo yet?” I nodded obediently, my head tucked down. “Tell your ma to bring you back something nice from America!” they said, by which they meant, tell her to bring them back something nice. They would beckon me inside their homes and stuff my hands with treats, and I would feel embarrassed to be so loved.
The first time I returned home with my pockets full of candy, Ahyi grabbed my elbow and marched me right out the door and back to the house I’d come from. She smiled and shook her head as she emptied my pockets onto the table, apologizing for me—bu dong shi, this child, she said, she understands nothing. She assured our neighbors that we had enough sweets in our own home. Save these for your children, she said, and besides, this one’s got bad teeth. Ahyi was a master of evading favors. Before they could try to push the treats on me again, we were out the door and Ahyi was shouting a last thanks and good night over her shoulder. On the walk home, she said to me, “Be careful, shi-san-dian!” Shi-san-dian was Ahyi’s nickname for me, her affectionate way of calling me “little idiot”. “If you accept gifts from everyone, next time your mother comes back she’ll have to empty her pockets thanking the entire town.”
I was in the market with Ahyi when I saw the weeping widow again. She walked with her head tilted towards the sky and her eyes far away, humming as she veered from vendor to vendor. I watched her as Ahyi bought vegetables for dinner. Every once in a while, she let out a mournful cry that sounded like a bird flying straight at your heart. She seemed to be wailing at nobody.
Ahyi had once told me that living in the same place where our ancestors were buried protected us. I imagined the spirits of my grandfather, my great grandparents, and my great great grandparents rising to walk beside us, while their bodies kept the earth full and thick so it wouldn’t collapse below us. I was not frightened by the weeping widow, walking as if among ghosts. I thought she was just living what was true.
On the walk home from the market we saw the widow again, up the road ahead of us. A group of boys were huddled nearby. The children all knew about her, I’d discovered when I recounted what I’d seen on Qingming. Everyone had already been warned by parents to stay away. She was our woman in the dark, our ghost in the flesh, the one who would eat you if you if you stayed out too late.
The boys were laughing excitedly and throwing pebbles at the widow. One by one, they ran towards her, tossed a stone and darted back to rejoin the group. A small stone struck the side of the widow’s foot, and a high whoop erupted from the boys. I squeezed Ahyi’s hand and pulled. She was already snatching her hand from mine. She stormed over to the boys, swinging her bag of vegetables at them. “Chu! Chu!” she hissed. “Idiots! What did she ever do to you?” Ahyi carried a stout authority. The boys scampered, and I thought I saw the weeping widow turn back to look at us, her mouth curled in an almost-smile.
We walked home that evening, Ahyi trailing the widow at a distance, and I trailing behind Ahyi, counting the strikes of her heels. It was almost dinnertime. The smell of burning wood snaked from blackened chimneys. As we passed the houses of our neighbors, heads emerged from doors, shouting Ahyi’s name. They asked us if we’d eaten and called us to join them, cradling bowls of rice and waving us in with their chopsticks. Ahyi shook her head. On a typical night, she would have thrown her head back and said, “Another time, Ah-gong, my mother’s still expecting us at home!” But that night she walked on briskly without responding, only occasionally waving her hand to say no. She seemed distracted, as if she wanted to be alone. I walked faster to catch up with her. “Look at you,” a woman said as we passed her door, poking her chopsticks in my direction. “Following behind your ahyi like a little tail. Come on! Your ahyi doesn’t want to come, but you can!” I smiled weakly at her and grabbed Ahyi’s hand.
Ahyi had told me that in the balance of giving and taking, I should always give more than I take. If I did this, good fortune would come to me. After the incident with the candy, I’d learned to refuse everything and anything as a rule of how to be a good person.
The summer after my mother left for America, the village roads swelled with rain then cracked dry under the pulsing sun. Everywhere, there were strange flowers to pick and berries to taste, blades of long grass to purse between lips in makeshift whistles, bamboo branches to brandish like swords. My mother had sent her first letter. She enclosed in it a picture of herself taken by my father. In the picture she stood alone before a small white house, wearing a broad rimmed hat and suit dress with stately shoulder pads. Her face was still and unsmiling.
I had never seen my mother like that: frozen. During her visits she was a flurry of hands and bags, sitting down on one chair just to get up half a minute later to sit or stand somewhere else. It seemed that the person in the picture was not my mother, but rather a memory of her.
I knew that so long as she was not here in Wantu, it made no difference whether she was in Shanghai or in America. But the photo was glossy and hard, and it cemented in my mind the knowledge that my mother was far away. Looking at it, I felt I had lost her for good.
I shook away the empty feeling and ran outside. It was late afternoon and the sun’s last rays peeked over the shoulder of the mountain. I ran up the road until my clothes were streaked with sweat and dirt. I splashed into the creek to cool my feet against the smooth, wet rocks. The sun dipped. The smoke of burning woodchips rose from the village. It was almost dinnertime. I started to wander back, turning down small roads without thinking where I was going, looking at the stones beneath my feet.
That was when I heard the song. There were no words to the song, just an unearthly melody that echoed in the hollow of my stomach. I was on a narrow path, and the singing was coming from inside one of the old houses on either side. I stopped in the middle of the path, listening. The singing grew louder. The figure of a woman appeared in the doorway of the house in front of me. It took me a moment to realize that it was the weeping widow.
She stopped singing and smiled at me.
“My child,” she said. “Why, you’re all alone.”
I had never seen the weeping widow from so close. I hardly recognized her with her hair tied back in a bun. Her skin was lined but soft, her eyes crinkled and small, and her mouth wide. She was wearing black cloth pants and a brown shirt with a qipao collar, the same work clothes that my own grandmother often wore. She stood above me on the stone porch of her house. Peeling red papers from the New Year striped the dark wood panels on either side of her door. I wondered who lived in the houses next to hers.
“Have you eaten yet? Come on inside.” the widow said. She waved her hand and turned into the dark mouth of her door, calling out over her shoulder. “I’m just making dinner.”
Perhaps the heat had made me bold. I was suddenly very hungry. I climbed the stone stairs and stepped over the threshold into her home.
It was dark inside. The widow nodded towards a table at the center of the room and disappeared into the kitchen in the back. I sat and waited for her to return.
The table was made from heavy red wood, similar to the one used for meals in my grandmother’s house. It was tall and my neck barely craned over it from the low stool where I sat. Along the sides, an intricate pattern of leaves and flowers was carved into the wood. At the corners, the floral pattern burst into heads of phoenixes and dragons. I traced the woodwork, collecting a thin film of dust on my finger. I wondered if grandmother’s table had these same patterns. The carvings twisted and turned, deep red in the dim light. I thought they were the most lovely things I had ever seen.
The widow was singing again. From the kitchen, I could hear the sounds of cooking. The gurgle of running water, the hiss of oil on hot iron, the cackle of wood chips burning. Beneath it all was the steady thud of a chopping knife meeting its wooden block. Whatever was cooking smelled heavenly, smoky and sweet and savory at once.
The faucet turned off. The singing stopped. I listened for the scrape of a metal spatula scooping against the wok. I could not hear it behind the gentle thud of the knife, which chopped on at a steady pace. Unaccompanied, the knife sounded slower and duller than Ahyi’s frenetic chopping. It shuddered through the walls like a great heartbeat of wood.
I looked toward the kitchen for the widow to appear. The doorway remained empty. I looked around the room, my eyes adjusting to the light.
Besides the table there was no other furniture. The windows were covered with yellowing tissue. The walls were papered with newspaper clippings, and the same photo of a young man had been pasted on every spare inch. The man’s eyes looked alive. They watched me from each corner. Red candles lined the walls and melted into pools of wax on the floor. Between the candles, bowls of offerings had been set out. In the flickering flames, the rice in the bowls seemed to squirm. When I looked closer I saw that they were larva, and that flies swarmed around the bowls’ cracked and soiled edges. At the table, I counted three place settings.
The widow appeared at the door of the living room. She was cradling a large, empty bowl and smiling serenely. I wondered what would happen to Ahyi if I disappeared. I pushed my chair back and fell out of it. My mother would never forgive her.
I stood up quickly and took a step back. The widow dropped her bowl. I ran for the door. I could hear the widow crying and running after me. Her voice sounded in a wail so sincere that for a moment I almost stopped. Then I remembered her face on Qingming, her wild gray hair and bulging eyes, and I ran, faster than I had ever run before, out the door and down the darkening path. My heart pounded stiff against my ears. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the path, where it forked onto the main road, that I dared to look back.
She had stopped. She stood in the frame of her door, looking at me strangely. Her look was almost tender, and yet it did not seem like she saw me at all. It was as if she was struggling to see past an immense wall, squinting and rubbing her eyes, and with a swelling pain I thought I understood—she did not see me as I was but as a picture of myself, stilled and frozen and beyond her grasp. The look on her face was the same one my mother would have seen on mine, if her photograph had been able to see.
I did not dwell on our loneliness. I turned around, and I ran all the way back to grandmother’s house where Ahyi was waiting, my lungs gulping so much air I thought they would burst.