New York City area code. Unknown caller. Annoyed, I let it ring. No message, a butt dial. The same number startles me again. A message this time. Ping’s brother. This brother, Shan, is ten years older than we are, a college student in the metropolis of Taipei when we are elementary school kids in our small southern town. We are excited when he comes home on the train with vinyl records for his scratchy player. He says the English songs help us learn English. The vinyl records are music of Simon and Garfunkel, Beatles, Bob Dylan. Songs that we don’t understand, but we memorize to keep up with the trend.
Why didn’t Ping call me? Why her brother?
The message says to call him.
It is dusk; I walk around the kitchen, fumble with my phone, debating if I should call him back. My palms are damp.
The subtropical wet spring in Taiwan. Rain persists for days. The maid strings laundry lines in the living room, the kitchen, the dining room, the hallway.
“Her uniforms are wet,” she tells my mother.
I wear the same uniform for three days. I don’t mind. I like the comfort of the wrinkled fabric and the smell of staled petrichor air. In the second grade, rainy days are special. I wear my red raincoat and black rain boots. Ping has a green raincoat, a hand-me-down from her brother, and oversized dark green rain boots. We tread the rocks on the swelled river to school, green frogs leap from rock to rock. I stop and look at them, laughing, bend to splash water. Ping rushes me on.
Our village is four rows of red brick cottages that the government built to house teachers. Our unit is at one end of the third row. Every morning, I walk to the village gate and wait for Ping. Then we walk together, take the shortcut crossing the shallow river to our elementary school. We sit side by side in classes, we share lunches. We go to art room and gym in the afternoons. We clean our classrooms at the end of the school day with the other children and teachers. She takes out trash, I wipe down the desks. She sweeps the floor, I clean the windows. Street vendors come to the village gate and sell snacks to students. Our favorite is grilled corn on the cob with chili oil—a charred stick of corn dripping with red oil wrapped in old newspapers. We eat with hungry eagerness, don’t care if we swallow the printed ink on the corn kernels.
Ping has two older brothers, one twelve years her senior, and Shan, ten years. The maid says Ping is an accident. I ask her what kind of accident, but my mother frowns at the maid and tells me I shouldn’t be nosy. I ask Ping if she is an accident; she says she is. She says her daddy loves her the best. After the boys leave home, she brings in the paper in the mornings and pours tea for breakfasts. She massages her mother’s shoulder whenever her neck is tight. She knows more than me, especially details of human bodies. Shan is studying to be an internist, and he shows her pictures of human body parts.
At fourth grade, we have math word problems. They are difficult, but not for Ping. One example the teacher shows in class: “Ten chickens and rabbits in one cage. The number of feet is twenty-eight. Each rabbit has four feet, and each chicken has two feet. Figure out the number of rabbits and the number of chickens in the cage.”
Ping runs her pencil on her note pad, and she says, beaming, “Six chickens and four rabbits.”
“That is correct!” the teacher says.
The whole class sighs with amazement. As Ping becomes the math protégé, I represent our school for the district writing contests. Ping helps me with math, and I write her essays.
That is before we keep secrets, before we know loss, before things become complicated. In high school, I have a crush on a boy from summer camp. After we return to our homes, I write long letters to him. Whenever his replies are late or curt, I cry.
“Foolish girl, boys are liars,” Ping tells me. “They don’t deserve your tears.” I think her brothers spoil it for her. She doesn’t have any romantic fantasies about boys. Embarrassed, I stop sharing my thoughts of boys. She takes part in the science classes—the sphere of precision, accuracy, and reliability—while I am in the shambolic classes of literature and arts. She pays attention to details, takes her time to decide. She is steadfast and reserved. I act on impulse. My feelings come first. I am careless, and temperamental.
By the time Ping lives on NYC’s Upper West Side, and I live in Greenville, South Carolina, she a PhD in Biology and renowned professor, and I a small-town community college instructor, our worlds are as apart as the Atlantic Ocean, a vast saltwater divide.
I visit her after we get in touch. She sobs like a baby when I show her pictures of my daughter, Zoe.
“What is it?” I am bewildered while I hand her the tissue box.
“I cannot have children,” she says in a low voice after she drains her tears.
“How do you know? You are not married,” I say, thinking how ridiculous she is.
“Yes, I was married for five years, divorced. He wants six children. His mother arranged a young Jewish woman for him.” She doesn’t look at me when she says this.
Ping and I have lost touch for eight years. But I cannot believe she didn’t invite me to her wedding. Are we strangers or are we childhood friends? Ping summarizes the eight estranged years in five sentences. Ping and Jason’s rash decision to get married disgusted Jason’s mother. Ping’s father flew in from Taiwan, urged Ping to reconsider. The wedding was only Jason and Ping at City Hall. Five years later, Jason, at divorce court, was generous. He gave her the expensive flat on Upper West Side and a small apartment in Paris.
An invisible wall separates us. A wall to protect, not to divide. We tiptoe around the conversations of my small family. We do not mention Ping’s solitude.
The phone rings again. Right now, Ping is undergoing surgery for brain cancer. And I am waiting, seven hundred miles away. I pick up.
“Shan, how is Ping?”
“The surgery removed the mass in the brain. They will start chemo. It originated from the lung.” Ping’s brother sounds grave. The oncologist suspects a gene linked to increased risk of cancer and suggests her brothers be tested.
Shan moves in with Ping. After his own divorce and paying alimony, he is penniless. Ping’s place is one straight shot on the M train to work, and Ping needs a nurse. A tragic family. A kiss of death.
Ping and I FaceTime in between her chemo treatments. She shrinks to the size of a fourth grader, a math protégé. She plans a trip to Paris to visit her favorite place: the Edgar Degas museum. November, low airfare, incredible color of leaves. I give her Lost in Translation by Ella Sanders for Christmas. A hard cover book by a young globe trotter who collects untranslatable words from different countries. Sanders presents the words in childlike illustrations on colorful picture pages. A soothing and appealing book. Ping finds the French word feuillemort and shares it with me.
“Feuillemort, an adjective in French, describing the color of a faded, dying leaf.”
Merriam-Webster describes feuillemort as “a brownish orange that is deeper and slightly redder than leather, yellower and deeper than spice, and yellower and deeper than gold pheasant.”
When I parse the word: feuille means leaf and mort means dead. Dead leaf. Leaf of death. Color of a faded, dying leaf. Ping collects the leaves by Seine and sends me one enclosed in a card of a print by Degas.
On her lingering days of life, she becomes romantic. She takes ceramic lessons at a studio near the Cloister. Her brother drives her there whenever she is up to it. She says to me, “I cannot picture a world without arts. You are the lucky one. You have your writing.”
After six months of pain and struggle, Ping passes away.
Paris, in the middle of autumn 2019, is my last international trip before the world shuts down. I stay in Ping’s efficiency apartment. The old heater hisses and the shower takes a while to drain. It rains every day. A chilling, misty sort of rain, not the warm spring rain in Taiwan that kissed my young face. Yellowed leaves, clinging to the ends of tree branches along the Seine River, make the trip worthwhile. I collect leaves and dry them on the hissing heater for Ping’s grave site. She gifts me the efficiency apartment in her will. It’s a small flat, an attic on top of an Irish pub in Latin quarter. The pub comes alive at night, making it impossible to sleep. Jet lagged, I sleep during the day when the crowd disperses.
I visit the Degas museum. Degas was Ping’s favorite painter. His print of “The Rehearsal” hung by Ping’s bed during her treatments. Three elegant ballerinas dressed in white chiffon tutus, in an air of aplomb, poise their right legs in fourth position, following the exuberant music from the violinist in the foreground with his frowning eyebrows and pained expression. The source of brightness comes from three wall-length windows in the background. Successful ballet performers require repetitive drills, Zen-like discipline. That single-minded training of the ballerinas resonates with Ping’s dogged work routine in her labs.
Degas lost his mother at thirteen. Ping lost hers at fifteen to breast cancer. The artist leads a solitary life, Ping is isolated after the divorce. Degas’s close study of classical art is no less rigorous than that of Ping’s PhD program. The pastel world Degas created is the proper last companion for Ping.
Unlike Ping, my favorite painter is Van Gogh, whose paintings Degas collected. And yet Degas ridicules the trend of impressionists. He detests their desire to paint the effect of light in the outdoors. Van Gogh’s deepest ambition is to paint light with bold colors and wild brush strokes. Twenty years Van Gogh’s senior, Degas lives to the ripe old age of eight-three, as opposed to the premature death of Van Gogh at thirty-seven. I have prints of Van Gogh’s “The Red Vineyard” and “The Sewer” on the walls of my study. They are outdoor landscapes with the play of light. I sympathize with Van Gogh’s wild state of mind, as I experience chaotic mental disarrays during my own bouts of depression.
Our preferences of painters and paintings come from our subconscious mind. An instinctive act, not a calculated decision. It reflects our inmost beings. But the distinction of our likings does not matter. In the end, we return to arts. The gift of vibrant human creativity.
I gather the dried leaves I collect by the river, tie them together with a blue silk ribbon, and leave them on Ping’s grave in the deep of winter. The radiant yellow color of dead leaves on glittering white ice: feuillemort.
Catherine C. Con holds a BA in English Literature from Fu-Jen Catholic University, Taiwan, and an MS in System Science from Louisiana State University. She is a Computer Science instructor at the University of South Carolina, Upstate. She is published in Emrys Journal, Tint Journal, The Bare Life Review, The Petigru Review, HerStry, Shards, Dunes Review, Emrys Journal Online, National Women’s History Museum, and Catfish Stew. Con was nominated for 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and selected for “2020 Local Authors” by Greenville County Library, South Carolina.