For a long time, we rely on the men to read the letters from our mothers. We rely on the men to write back as well, so we say things like today the sky shimmers silver and the hens laid a good batch of eggs and our sons have just learnt to walk. We talk about the beauty of the Yongming River. The men write this down, stopping, every now and then, to challenge us. Your sons began walking four weeks ago, not today, they chide. One of the hens is sickly and tomorrow we will kill it for meat, they say. It rained all afternoon and the river is mud brown.
When the men correct us, we smile and keep very still. Yes, you are right, we say. The men do not notice the flick of a tendon in our necks or the clench of our jaws. All they hear is yes, you are right, and they are smug as they write down their versions of our stories.
Amongst ourselves we play a secret game. We take the ink blocks and brushes from our husbands when they are not looking. A sh sound as a neat horizontal stroke, a ch as a line at one angle, a zh at another. Different dots and lines for vowels, a i o e u ü, eyelashes and teardrops on a page. It was never meant to be a code, just a painting of sounds, a way to tether the words that slip so easily from our throats.
But the game begins to grow. Soon our sisters know it too, and then our mothers, and then our distant relatives in far off villages. We realize we can now write entire sentences.
He gave us a bruise the size of a peach today.
We did not want to have the child.
He has a sixth finger.
We are in love with the woman who walks by the river in the morning.
What if we run away?
We slip the notes into parcels of dried wolfberries, press them into the folds of soft garments we have sewn as gifts. The unsuspecting men deliver them to our sisters and mothers, our relatives further afield. Soon, even though we are apart, we no are no longer alone.
• • •
But some of us are careless. Perhaps we leave a note on the dining table, perhaps we do not tuck them as deeply into pleats of fabric as we should. The men find them, the translucent slips of paper that rustle too loudly within bags of fruit, brandish them in their callused hands.
• • •
We lower our heads and draw our corners in, bracing ourselves for what is to come. We prepare the excuses we will make to the men: It was only a game. We only talk about trivial things, women’s things. Clothes and cooking and how to raise a child. Look, we’ll show you. We select the most innocent of notes to read to them.
But the men do not even ask to see. They laugh in our faces, tell us how clever we are in the same cooing voices they use when our sons learn to walk. How funny, they say to each other, look at those chicken scratchings, the women have truly gone and done it now. They do not ask what we write about, merely pat our hips affectionately and ask if it isn’t time for dinner soon.
We put the notes back into our pockets, crushing them in our fists. We pick up baskets of laundry and head for the river. We fire up the stove. But our hands hesitate at the last moment, and we cannot let the crumpled balls go. We cannot let the flames or water win.
Later, when the men have gone to bed, we smooth the paper out on dining tables. We trace the words with our fingernails over and over again, until the thin paper rips and reveals splintered wood beneath. Then, taking out fresh pieces of paper, we begin to write.
Rachel Heng‘s first novel, Suicide Club, was named a most anticipated read of 2018 by the Irish Times, Gizmodo, Bustle, NYLON, New Scientist, ELLE, Bitch Media, the Huffington Post, Tor.com, the Millions and the Rumpus, and will be translated into 10 languages worldwide. Her short fiction has received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, Prairie Schooner‘s Jane Geske Award, and has been published or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review, the Offing and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, the National Arts Council of Singapore and the Michener Center for Writers.