A Refuge Without Light

By: Alice Wu

“Ma, it’s morning. It’s time to get up.”

Her eyes flickered open cautiously. The room was dark and shapeless, yet she made out that she was lying in a bed with worn quilts covering her legs. A strange, gray-faced woman walked in quietly to open the shutters, and suddenly, sharp light was piercing into Yuan’s narrowed eyes. 

“Ma, it’s me, Jin.”

Yuan squinted up at her daughter’s face. Silver threads shone on her head, and her cheeks, once pink and plump, had begun to sag. She looked so old. 

“Ma, can you walk?”

“No,” Yuan grunted. 

“Oh, alright. I’ll help you up, ma.” With a firm, familiar touch, Jin helped roll Yuan up to a sitting position and then slowly lifted her up from the bed. 

Yuan stood unsteadily and teetered towards the door, but Jin trailed close behind her. 

Yuan’s buck-toothed granddaughter, Fei, was slouched against the couch cushions. “Morning, granny,” she beamed.

“Morning,” Yuan muttered back. Her breath shuddered as she bent her knees to sit down. Jin poured her a cup of steaming tea, but Yuan still couldn’t quite open her eyes to the light. Her eyelids twitched. If she only let them fall back down, then she would return to the soft, smooth darkness. Light only revealed everything’s edges.

“I’m not a fool. Jin, you’ve done everything you can, but this old body isn’t going to last much longer,” she said.

“Ma, don’t talk like that,” Jin sighed. 

“No. I’ll say what I need to. If there’s one time to listen to me, it’s when I’m close to dying.” She paused. “I want to be with both my children. When is Shan coming?”

Jin stood silent before letting out a choppy laugh. “Ma, I don’t understand. Shan can’t be here.”

“He told me he was coming.” 

“He told you he was coming,” Jin repeated incredulously. She shook her head, her voice trailing off.

As Yuan closed her eyes, there was Shan, a chubby boy chasing after his sister in the sweltering heat of summer. Both children came home glossy-faced and panting, having worn out the seams of their cloth shoes. Yuan would have to mend the shoes to keep them together, but then Shan cried out that he still wanted to play. She called for him to stay, but he kept running under the blazing blue sky, going farther and 

farther away. 

“Shan is in America, ma,” Jin finally said. “He probably can’t take time off work.” 

“He hasn’t been back in four years,” she protested.

“It’s far away. And it’s expensive to fly here. Ma, I’m sorry,” she said quietly. 

Yuan could see Shan standing by the door and saying goodbye for the last time. He chattered on with big words about how he would send so much money back home. Fortunes were bright in America, he assured her. Even the moon was reputedly brighter. Ma, I’ll be back, he said. I’ll be back. 

As the phone rang, Yuan gasped as the muscles in her back seized up. She was back in the sun-drowned kitchen, and her ears were flooded with a shrill, persistent sound. As the pain cooled and the noise died down, Yuan heard Shan telling her he’d been forced to take work as a waiter. America didn’t want him and his broken speech, not when there were other people who could speak English in a rapid stream and in a clearer accent. He didn’t have money to send, Shan said. But he would someday. 

“Ma, do you want more tea?” Jin asked.

“Why can’t I call my son?” Yuan asked back.

“It’s late over there,” Jin said. “There’s a time difference.”

“Well, remind me to call him tomorrow or I’ll forget again.”

“I will, ma.” Jin pursed her lips. “Let me help you to the bathroom.”

“I don’t need to go.”

“Ma,” she said firmly, showing a practiced smile. “It’s about time.”

With small, faltering steps, Yuan eventually reached a white door. There was another woman waiting for her inside, someone with a pale face and eyes like chips of clouded, blue ice. White wisps of hair clung to her head, with several patches missing. There were caverns under her eyes and valleys running through her face.

Yuan had become the winter woman. She reached out to touch the mirror’s cool surface, and suddenly she was lying in another bed and holding a wrinkled, screaming baby up to her chest. Her skin hung limply on her body, and her throat was hoarse from screaming, but she would call him Shan. He sniffled and flushed red, but in the blackness of night, Yuan would kiss him and he would sleep soundly like any healthy baby would. Most of all, he was hers to hold.

She was in the hospital again, and the lights were brighter now, though still dim. As Yuan’s husband Zhong let out a hacking cough and spat out brown phlegm, Jin was there to bring a hot cup of tea or watch as her father slept. Meanwhile, Shan was still across the ocean. He wanted to be there, he said, but he’d finally found work as a engineer. He was busy now. Yuan merely nodded and smiled that yes, he would be back someday. There was always time.

“Ma, are you alright in there?” Jin opened the door. 

Yuan was led to the couch, where she fell back into the cushions. The television buzzed, and light kept streaming in from the window, but Yuan fluttered between sleep and reality until the couch began to tremble. She kept her eyes shut as Fei’s voice pierced the air. 

“Why can’t we talk about it? She’s not even awake. My uncle is dead. He got cancer. There, I said it.” 

“Fei,” Jin hissed, “be quiet. Sometimes it’s kinder to keep the truth from people. Especially for old women with weak hearts.”

Lifting one eyelid up, light came down like a hot needle. Yuan’s eyelids then shuttered down firmly, blocking everything out. In the darkness, she could feel Shan’s form next to her. She kissed his forehead and lay back in her place. There, in the constant, solid blackness, she was safe.