The Visitor by Jen Soong

The Visitor

A tangle of tubes ran from his right arm to a silver hook on a rack, where two translucent, fluid-filled bags dangled. He couldn’t sleep. The machines were beeping, rude as his prying wife. He was lying on a bed in a windowless hospital room on the Upper East Side, in a threadbare gown covered by a thin sheet, not a corpse yet.

He was startled to see an old Chinese woman with long white hair sitting on a hard chair in the corner. He squinted to make out her features. That was not his wife. Same age, more elegant. She was wearing a long black qipao with a stiff collar, ivory embroidered cranes on the right shoulder and a diagonal line of knotted red buttons and gold trim. Was he hallucinating? Was she a ghost, one of those wandering souls severed from her afterlife? On the ceiling, a Persian rug was moving in undulating waves. It resembled a carpet he had in his bedroom two houses ago. How did it get here? His head hurt.

“What do you want from me, Old Woman?”

“Did you bang your head and forget? Don’t you know who I am?”

Her voice was familiar. Steady and demanding. He couldn’t place it. His surgeon, a Jewish doctor who was married to a Chinese woman, spoke a few Mandarin phrases to him (“eat congee, feel better”) but failed to mention what recovery required. Knives stabbed his abdomen — hot jabs alternating left-right-left by an invisible assailant.

“It’s me, Son. Your Mother.”

Ma, Ma. Her hair was longer and whiter than he remembered. Wrinkles framed her mouth; her dark eyebrows raised in a question mark. It had been years since he’d seen her alive. When he left Taiwan for America, he was twenty-six, ferrying an aluminum suitcase with his father’s blazer, two tailored suits, slide rule, passport and Chinese-English dictionary. His mother — a black cartwheel hat in one hand and yellow chrysanthemum fan in the other — waved goodbye as he boarded an ore-carrying freighter ship at the Kaoshiung dock. He never saw her again. In the hospital room, he looked into her black eyes, tumbling into a well, falling and flailing, deeper and deeper until he saw himself as a boy.

Standing near the door, he was wearing shorts and a shirt that was once white, a standard primary school uniform. He was eight, his dark, uncombed hair tousled in a curl in the middle.

“Take Big Cousin to the pond to bathe, Bierbao,” his mother instructed. Bierbao was his nickname as a boy; his cousins teased him, they said his full head of hair looked like a jai alai player they once rooted for from Bilbao. Big Cousin was visiting from his dad’s village, he would stay near the gorges for a month in the summer.

“Run and hide in the tunnels if you hear the sirens,” Ma said. The nighttime air raids were growing more frequent; sometimes he heard the roar of the Japanese bombers in his dreams. “Don’t get your shoes muddy, your birthday present.”

“Okay, Ma,” he said, slipping a rubberband ball into his pocket. She stirred a bubbling cabbage wonton soup, his favorite, on the stove. She smelled like gardenias.

He led Big Cousin on a shortcut through reed stalks, soil doused in goose poop. At one end of the pond, water buffalo wallowed in mudholes, grunting and snorting. Occasionally, one buffalo would ram his horns onto another’s rump. Collared finchbills with butterscotch chests chirruped. A trio of singing women washed their laundry along the banks. He took off his shirt, tossed it on the grass, stepped out of his flimsy shoes and waded into the water.

“Catch,” he threw his ball to Big Cousin.

Big Cousin caught it in one hand and then lobbed it high, splashing into the water. He dove under to retrieve it, spitting out dirty water as he broke the surface, triumphant. He laughed. They played like this until the sun retreated to the horizon. They walked along the same reed-covered path to return home.

By the time they arrived, his head hurt. The room wobbled like grass jelly, table and chairs shaking, the earth was about to swallow all of them. He looked down at his hand. The rubberband ball unraveled, then vanished. His shoes were coated in mud. He lay his head, sticky hot, on his mat. Everything went dark.

Three days later, he opened his eyes. Too bright. The first thing he saw was his mother. Her black hair shone in the sunlight, her eyes watered. She lifted his head, plumped a pillow behind him and spooned a hot clear broth from a silver bowl into his mouth. It burned his tongue.

“You fell ill,” she said. “You’re back now.” Her voice was soft.

“My son, my son.” She patted his head.

Back in the dim hospital room, a series of beeps continued. The old woman and son locked eyes, both shining with wetness. He remembered at her memorial service, his father had shaken his hand with sad eyes and a shrunken face, and said, “Your mother was not the same after you left. She lost part of her mind.” He had so many regrets. Yes, he had written letters and sent money. He had sent for his brother and sister to come to this country. But after time passed, he stopped calling. How could he forget his own mother? He caught a whiff of her gardenia perfume.

He wept.

“I never got the chance to say goodbye,” he said.

“No need, Son,” she said. “I am your Ma.” She stood up, walked toward him and patted his head like he was still a boy with a full head of black hair. Her hand was impossibly warm.

He nodded and closed his eyes, memorizing the warmth of her touch. When he awoke, he stroked the top of his head. He could feel the trace of her fingers. He would live to see another birthday.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen Soong grew up in New Jersey and now lives in California. An alum of Tin House and VONA, her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Audacity, Jellyfish Review, Cosmonauts Avenue and Waxwing. She received her MFA in creative writing from UC Davis. Her memoir-in-progress is about family ties, depression and the silences we learn to break. Find her work at

More by Jen Soong Altar of Mine


Art Kanae Yamomoto Public Domain A colour woodcut of a woman dressed in white


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