The days were rapidly lengthening; I could barely remember the spun-out dawns and twilights of winter. But although the nights were short, they felt long and wild. We had rearranged the beds again, each one against a different wall, and Pei-Pei and I were sleeping with our heads pointed to the same corner. Sometimes, when I breathed too loudly, Pei-Pei scrambled out of bed in a huff. She grabbed hold of my feet and rotated me like the hand of a clock. She tossed her pillow to the other side of her own bed, and suddenly she felt far away.
“I can’t sleep,” I whined.
She forced out a long, voiced sigh. “Why not?”
“Thoughts,” I said. “Dreams.” I described one. A dot of mold was on my forearm, an ash-gray spot like the ones we excised from bread. I couldn’t wash it off. It’s spreading, Pei-Pei had informed me as she handed me a knife.
There was silence. Had she gone back to sleep? But she appeared over me. She whispered, “It’s okay. Ruby didn’t die that way.
”It was a while before I could whisper back, “What are you saying?”
“She didn’t rot. They burned her.”
I jammed my fingers under the mattress until I found the cool metal mesh of the bed frame. I could hear Natty’s sharp little sleep breaths from his adjacent bed.
“They burned her body.”
The night-light by the foot of Natty’s bed seemed jittery. It flickered, but when I stared at it, it stilled.
“She’s in their closet. On the high shelf. I’ve seen it.” Pei- Pei’s hair trembled as she bent further forward. I could perceive the outline of her figure as it hovered over me, a blanket draped over her shoulders so she was the shape of a leaf pile. And her short, breathy utterances were like small, unknown animals darting out of that pile; they kept coming, from the darkness, rustling at me.
“The urn is really small,” she said. “The size of a large soup can.”
I swatted at her face.
“What was that for?”
“Get away from me.”
“I’m just saying, go to sleep. It’s okay. You can go to sleep.” She turned and retreated to her own bed.
Soon I could hear her clear breaths, sipping air and letting it go. Would Ruby fit in a soup can? All of her? Wouldn’t some part of her have to be left behind? I grunted. The night-light strobed. My whole body contracted, trying to rid itself of a foreign object. A knuckle in my throat.
Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep, I crept down the stairs to the kitchen or den, where I flipped on the lights to push the darkness back. Things had a sheen of unfamiliarity in those hours, or non-hours, as they felt: the strange pattern of Natty’s crayons scattered over the den carpet; the wrinkled surface of the couch cushions, which my mother had sewn into unbleached canvas casing to preserve the maroon velour; the closet in the cramped entryway of the house, with its door left ajar. The closet was very narrow, perhaps two and a half feet across, and our coats were crammed in so tightly, a sleeve sometimes reached out and kept the door from latching. Every item in the house seemed slightly askew, as though a stranger had been handling it.
One night, in those viscous hours meant for sleep, I found my father sitting on the couch in the near-dark. Feet planted wide, elbows on his knees. The small lamp that Pei-Pei had made in school from a soda can had been moved from a folding chair down to the carpet, where its crooked shade leaned against the base of the couch. Its bulb was the size of a cork, and it gave off the only weak light in the room. My father was leaning be-tween his legs and staring at the carpet, where Natty had left one of his drawings.
Unsure if he’d seen me, I thought about retreating to the kitchen, but as I took a step, I stumbled on an encyclopedia volume and then knocked into a folding chair. Without looking up, my father pointed to Natty’s drawing. “Look at that,” he said. Resting on the cushion beside my father was a mug, and as he moved, liquid swelled to the lip of it. I watched to see if it would spill over.
“Really look at it,” he said.
I stepped to the other side of the drawing, which lay in the orb of lamplight, and became distracted by the little bulb. I had a straight view of it from the top, right through the opening in the shade, and its sudden brightness in our dark den was searing.
“What do you think?”
I blinked spots away, then considered the drawing. Natty pressed hard on his crayons, and the strokes were thick and waxy. He’d unearthed a book of old space photographs from the bottom of a crate and had been copying them in crayon. I recognized this one as Mars, seen from the Viking 2 orbiter. In the photo, it was dawn, and most of the planet was subsumed in darkness, save an arc of red land. Natty hadn’t outlined the red arc, drawing a banana shape and coloring it in the way Pei- Pei or I might have, but instead had layered stroke after stroke after stroke so that even though the strokes weren’t precise, exactly, in sum the planet looked red and swirling and the polar cap like a blotted, bluish patch of ice that palmed the curve of land and faded at the edges into vapors. The land was pitted and scarred.
I knew the drawing was good because, like the photos, it made me dizzy. The idea of space gave me a spinning feeling; it was too big and unbounded, and the more I tried to believe in it, the more I believed in nothing.
My father shook his head. “Just what do you do with some-thing like this?” There was a sudden movement on the wall, and I turned around to see his massive shadow, stretching up the wall and folding onto the ceiling, where it waggled its vague, enormous head.
“What was that for?” he asked.
It’s possible I had shrunk away from him, or raised an arm to shield myself, or maybe I had cringed.
“What has your mother told you about me?”
“She said something, didn’t she?” My father grabbed the sleeve of my long johns, pinching my skin near my elbow. “What did she say about me?” His leg jerked, kicking the lamp over, and he let go of me to right it. When I glanced at where it had fallen, I noticed a large envelope on the floor, beneath a small, neat stack of paper. All of the text was in English. Sometimes, reading the newspaper, my father would point to a word and ask Pei-Pei if she knew what it meant, pretending to test her.
“It’s not true,” he said. “Or not the way she tells it. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Like all of his children, my father had a very round face, but that night the cheek farthest away from the lamp was hollowed out by shadows. The right side of his face was lit, and his right eye seemed to stare at me harder than his left; there was a strange gleam in it.
“It’s not my fault,” he said.
I glanced at him through my bangs. It was hard for me to meet his uneven gaze. I unrolled the cuffed sleeves of my shirt so they hid my hands completely. I looked down and up and around. The room seemed off-kilter, with all its shadows thrown upward, at a slant.
When I tilted my head, I could see the top half of the first page on the stack. In the left corner was the incomplete border of a rectangle and several words printed in capital letters. My father’s name, TSUNG-CHIEH HSU. The word DEFENDANT. To the right of the box was the word SUMMONS.
“There are things that happen,” he said, and he seemed to be talking to someone suspended in the air above me. “The very things you fear. For a while you don’t believe it, because you’ve spent so much energy fearing it, keeping it away, how could it have happened?” He curled his knuckly toes as he took a large gulp from his mug and balanced it back on the cushion. His hulking shadow moved again, too large for the low-ceilinged room as it tried to straighten itself.
My father gathered the wool military blanket bunched at the back of the couch and folded it in half. He draped it over my shoulders and held it closed below my chin. It pooled around my feet.
“I’ve turned off the heat completely,” he said. “You’ll have to wear more at night. And you’ll have to eat more. Listen, you’ve really got to eat.”
I couldn’t think of a way to explain that something was stuck in my throat— that was why I couldn’t eat. As I reached for the corners of the blanket, my father let go, and it fell off my shoulders. There was a draft in the room.
“You’ve got to put on some weight for next winter.” He waved a hand at the length of my body as though he almost couldn’t bear to consider it. He grunted. “At least we’ve got four walls and a roof.” He reached over to the wall and slapped it, just beside the window that looked onto our dark yard. My heart pounded at the dim, shadow- etched face staring at us from outside, in the instant it took to realize the face was my father’s reflection. As he brought his arm back, he tipped the mug beside him, and a portion of his drink splashed out. He swooped to rescue Natty’s drawing. He shook the page, a sheet of green-and-white-bar paper with the perforated edges still attached, but it was dry.
He took hold of both edges and studied the drawing again, lowering it for light. “Do you think he’s a genius? Do you think he’ll be famous?”
My father had told us that he used to be a genius, that he had an advanced degree from Taiwan. My mother had never denied it, so I knew it was true.
“Yes,” I said.
“You think so?”
“Painter, you think? Or something else?”
“Cartoons?” I said.
“No.” He dropped his hand. “Do you see this?” He shook the paper again. “It has an essence.” He closed his eyes nearly all the way, and half-moon shadows clung to his eyelids. “They might put his paintings up in a museum, all in a nice, straight row.”
I stayed quiet.
“With a special light for each painting.”
I pressed the damp blotch on the couch cushion where his drink had spilled.
“Does Natty do anything strange?”
I lifted my hand. “What?”
“Anything out of the ordinary.” My father held the paper by the lamp again. “Michelangelo wouldn’t take off his boots. Not even to sleep. When the boots finally came off, they peeled his skin away.”
I stared at my father’s bare feet. They were softer than my mother’s, whiter. The toenails had a yellow cast. He had not grown up beside an ocean, scrambling over rocks. During the day, his feet were swaddled in thick socks and boots made of rubber.
I thought of Natty sitting naked on the edge of the tub, lacking the will to seek something so basic as warmth. “Natty isn’t strange,” I said.
“Maybe that will come later,” he said.
“It won’t,” I said.
He rose and pinned the drawing to the bare wall with his open hand, leaning over two rows of crates. “Go get the tape.”
I ran into the unlit kitchen and rummaged in the drawer. Something gouged my hand, and I closed my fingers around the plastic case.
When I returned, my father was in the same position, his index finger tapping a dark spot on the red arc of Mars— the volcano Ascraeus Mons, which I knew from the caption in the book stood fourteen miles tall. A tallness that stretched beyond our comprehension on earth.
I tore a strip of Scotch tape. My father centered it over the top edge of the drawing and jammed his thumb against the tape. “Right there,” he muttered. He ran his thumb back and forth, hard, so that it would be impossible to remove the tape without an accompanying strip of wall.
When I wandered down the next morning, the drawing stuck there gave me a start; hadn’t it been a dream? Within days the paper had curled forward, as though trying to hide itself.
Excerpted from THE UNPASSING by Chia-Chia Lin. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux May 7th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Chia- Chia Lin. All rights reserved.