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The Year She Left Us

Part One: The Year of the Sheep

Chapter One: Ari

Lucky girl. That’s what I was told from the first moment I can remember. Another stranger, smelling unlike my mother, would swoop in low with a scary-wide smile to ruffle my hair or pinch my cheek.  I would shrink and scamper, hide my face in my mother’s knees, hear them laughing at my baby shyness. Later, I stared, black-eyed and baleful. I hated to be reminded. Hello, Ariadne. What a lucky little girl. Now you have a family. I’m the one who’s lucky, my mother would always chirp. She knew my fell looks, was afraid of my eruptions, my locked face and the storms that followed. When left alone, I would say please and thank you. When prompted to be grateful, I went gleefully mute.

I had other labels, too. A miracle, a blessing. An ironic twist to a long family saga. That one made me laugh, since I wished I had said it myself. A colossal mistake. That’s what Gran called me until the mistake had arrived and couldn’t be gotten rid of. Some people bundled me with all the others, for there are thousands of girls like me, like us, who were carried away to the richer nations and raised into families gobsmacked with love, swollen with good intentions. The Lost Daughters of China.  The Unwanted, the Inconvenient, the Unhappy Outcome of the One Child Policy. Rescued is how my mother, Charlie, sometimes put it. I have a better word. Salvaged.

She’s hardly worth noticing, that lucky little girl. Most people think they already know her, since she can be found all over America, growing up in cities and towns and suburbs, from the most ordinary places to the unlikeliest of locales. They spot her at the mall, strolled by her white mother and father, and on the swings at the playground and in their child’s classroom. She’s smaller than her playmates, with hair as shiny as a beetle’s back. One quick look at her sends their minds to swift conclusion: Asian kid, white parents, must be adopted, probably from China. There are so many of us now that the sight of a mismatched family is as ho-hum as baby’s breath tucked into a clump of roses. Cute kid, is what they’re thinking. Well behaved. Early reader.

They wouldn’t be wrong for a lot of the girls they see. My Whackadoodle group was full of that kind of charmer: the unfussy baby, the adorable child, the soccer midfielder who played the flute and loved her golden retriever. A well-adjusted girl, despite the bleak beginning. A lucky girl with a brief, predictable story.

That wasn’t me. I fixed my sights on that bleak beginning and ran straight toward it while the rest of them scrambled away. My story was mine to demand, holes and gaps and secrets and silences and all. Some of it was told to me; some I lived or guessed at. I’m writing it down for all the mothers who wave at us in the grocery store and jangle their car keys and try to get us to smile. For the fathers who glance our way and think, That’s what we would’ve done, if we hadn’t been able to finally get pregnant. But most of all, I’m talking straight to you: the dropped-off daughters, the loose-change children, the thousands upon thousands whose lives branched when we were hours new. Though we’re older now—the oldest of us have grown from babies to girls to women—we can’t shake that feeling of what if and I might have been. My story is as much yours as it is mine, full of the unanswerable questions that invade and claim us, turning us inward until we lose ourselves completely. It’s an act of self-preservation, writing down what scraps I know. I’m trying to skirt boggy disaster, the swamp that surrounds us, the dark water that refuses us a clear look at the bottom. I have no idea whether my words will save me. Whether, in the telling, I can flail my way out. I know only that I’m very tired and ought to stop and rest. Like the traveler who swaps a tale in exchange for a hunk of bread and a warm place by the fire, I sink to the ground and begin. I’ll leave for you the crucial question: Must I be grateful? Is that your idea of luck?

Knife or scissors. Scissors or knife. The question was in my mind even before I knew it was there. Knife was sharp, and quick. Scissors snipped. Snip, snap. A cleaner cut, a chicken bone sheared. Knife was swift: one downward motion. Scissors were careful: no room for mistakes. Knife might bounce.  Scissors might slip. Knife might miss. Scissors might not cut through.

The artist used a knife. He used a knife and a taxi. The knife was from his kitchen. The taxi was from the street. He paid the driver up front. If I don’t come out, come in and get me.

Which hand, left or right? Easy question. Left hand. Right hand writes. Right hand dribbles. Right hand is the only hand that can hold the knife or scissors.

Palm up or palm down? Empty or at rest? Up, up. Let me read your future. Down, down. Hello and then good-bye.

Knife: on a surface. Scissors: in the air. Knife: aim well. Cover up the other fingers. Stretch wide between  the one and the rest. Mr. Spock, ha. Live long and prosper.

The artist’s hand was beautiful. Soft and smooth. The hand of someone young. A perfect cut. A yawning gap. Lack, emptiness, less, fewer. Less is more. Absence speaks louder. Negative space. Wiggle-waggle. As wide as the sky. As vast as the ocean. Count backward from ten. Ninepins left standing.

Knife wants steady. Ready, aim, chop. Scissors want strength. Powerful grip. Elbow grease. Clamp shut. Put your back into it.

Afterward, what? Blank, blank, blank. Blankety-blank. Fill in the blank. Soft as a blanket.

Knife or scissors? Scissors or knife?


The Year She Left Us
by by Kathryn Ma

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062273353
  • ISBN-13: 9780062273352