Your Ba has gone mad was what Ah Ma spat out in between her hissing and huffing. Without closing the door behind her, she stomped off to Madame Wong, our apartment neighbor, which said a lot about Ah Ma’s state of mind, considering she’d always told me to “keep my mouth shut about family stuff” now that we’ve left Hong Kong to move to Madagascar, living among strangers. But there she was, gesticulating with that woman on the landing below our floor, her voice wired with bitter resentment, “how can I argue with a blind man who says he sees dust?” Madame Wong couldn’t agree more. She nodded, sighed in unison with my mother. “Must be left-over trauma, you know, people from that era…war and then the Communists,” she quipped, with her finger tapping her right temple. She ushered my mother inside to have Oolong tea. I slammed our door shut.
Ah Ba wasn’t crazy, just a bit too serious about cleanliness. He saw dust everywhere even if he’d lost his eyesight a decade ago. Dust, he claimed, was peppering the air, sticking to his skin, hair, he could see dust threaded like black cotton ropes falling from the sky, covering bed linen and tablecloth drying on the clothesline in our veranda. Asked me to hold two corners of the sheet, he on one end, me on the other, and we spent ten minutes shaking the invisible speckles off the sheet, until my arms were sore, and I begged him to stop. Said he saw dust sneaking into our armoires and asked me to get the Scotch tape, the wide kind. Taped over the hinges of the armoire, between the fissures of the frame and the doors, inside and out for good measure. He pulled out all our shirts, my shorts, my mother’s dresses, and packed each item in a plastic bag, sealed the bag with more tape. The windows in our living room were next. Each square of glass got its border taped to prevent the dust from creeping inside the house. Each evening saw Ah Ba batter away the dust from bed covers and pillows with his fists. The moustiquaires above our beds got their share of whipping. Even that wasn’t enough. He ran a coconut brush over the delicate cotton tulle because the dust was as stubborn as he was, not letting go of things once it landed on the surface. It tore the gauze into big holes like gruyère.
Ah Ba’s phobia of dust started after I got sick a few months prior. I stayed in bed with chills and fever, tittering between reality and hallucinations where waves of soldiers in red uniforms swallowed Nai-nai’s ghost holding Ah Ba’s hand, and I reached out to hold him back when Ah Ma’s face appeared, telling me I was wailing in my dreams. Ah Ba called in a French doctor who prescribed a bitter liquid, crushed quinine pills in water, and recommended installing mosquito nets. There wasn’t much more he could do, malaria was fairly common, especially amongst newcomers. After he left, Ah Ma fought with Ah Ba for moving us to this “forsaken island.” Ah Ba countered he was saving us all with his decision. In my delirium, I felt Ah Ba’s cool forehead on mine, felt the cold towel he laid on my head. The mosquito net trembled, white gauze fluttering behind him like a winged wizard blending with night.
CHRISTINE H. CHEN — Christine was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Madagascar before settling in Boston where she worked as a research chemist. Her fiction work has been published in The Pinch, CRAFT Literary, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other journals. She is a grateful recipient of the 2022 Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship and the co-translator from French of the hybrid novel My Lemon Tree, forthcoming in 2023 by Spuyten Duyvil. Her publications can be found at www.christinehchen.com.
Art by RURI KATO — Ruri is an artist and a full-time qualitative researcher based in Tokyo, Japan. She loves her cat, reading, eating, and taking walks through beautiful places. More of her art can viewed on Instagram as @rurilourdek.