There is a grove behind my house in which things do not grow so much as crawl towards the nearest light. Even the plants cannot tell the difference between the sun and camphor — when I was twelve, I left my flashlight buried in the dirt for a week, and when I came back the bushes had devoured the batteries completely. Ama says that it is because I spent too long playing hide and seek in the trees as a child that I now find myself following streetlights, dizzy firetrucks, every bitter flash of white against the skyline. Ama says that she had an aunt once, who did the same thing, and now she is just another soft-spoiled fruit, withering in the dirt. Annie, Ama says, her name was Annie. She married a white man but when it came time for them to leave it turns out he wasn’t even serious about marrying her in the first place. So he left her and she had to slit her own throat, from jaw to jaw in a little red smile. When I ask Ama why Auntie Annie didn’t just use a bullet like the people in movies do, she draws out a meat cleaver and shows me the edge. To pulverize your own brain like you pulverize fruit is to commit a sin, Ama says. When I ask Ama why Auntie Annie married the white man in the first place, Ama tells me it was because she did not know the meaning of pride.
Ama says that if I become like her aunt, living off of the mercies of mei guo ren, I’ll become a soft-spoiled fruit too, a mandarin dripping thick juice into the sidewalk. Ama says not even the meanest white man would want to marry a smashed orange. Too sticky, Ama tells me. Even the mailman would not take if you offered. Ama says lots of things, but I don’t listen to all of them. Most of what she says is only half-real, anyways, like a story split into crosshairs, each branch only partially true.
When I do listen, she makes me sit down in the kitchen and wash her hair. Usually, this happens at night before bed, with the rice-wash bucket from the day before. As the milky water splashes all over us she tells me the stories her aunt told her before she died. According to Ama, Auntie Annie was smart before she fell in love with the white man. She had a good mind, Ama tells me. Also why she didn’t want to use a gun. Such pretty brains, too much of a waste to shoot. Whenever Ama tells stories of Auntie Annie, I always wonder where her own place is in them. When I ask, Ama tells me I am too young to understand and changes the subject.
Ama doesn’t love me, but she likes me enough to let me trade chores for three meals a day andthe spare-room bed. When I was younger I used to ask why she kept me if she wasn’t willing to raise me for free, and Ama smacked me on the shoulder. Having a child around saps the pain out of my head, Ama said. A cat would be better but in America, you can’t let them keep house on their own when you’re out.
Ama is too young to be a mother, so I believe her when she says that we aren’t from the same blood. When I ask where she found me, Ama says she picked me up on the street corner one morning when she was buying youtiao after she watched a Hallmark movie about a nice white couple doing the same thing to a stray dog. Later, I ask her if she and Auntie Annie were from the same blood too. Ama does not ever look sad, but her eyebrows darken into the closest approximation of anger that someone with a face as stiff as hers can muster. Not from the same blood, Ama tells me. She lost that blood when she left me behind.
As Ama gets older, her stories change, as all stories cut from their roots do. Sometimes, when
she talks about Auntie Annie slitting her throat, Auntie Annie ends up living. The doctor stitched her throat back together, Ama tells me. Sometimes, the story ends after Auntie Annie’s husband comes back to her. Sometimes, Auntie Annie turns into a swan, and the doctor plucks out all her feathers, making a cape of them. Sometimes, Ama calls Auntie Annie jiejie before she starts all over again.
When Ama tells me the last rendition, we are sitting in the grove, feet propped up on the roots of an orange tree. Both of our hands are sticky with the freshness of a half-ripe mandarin. She was a good jiejie, Auntie Annie says. She would have been a good mother to you if she had lived.
When we go out to buy Ben and Jerry’s, Ama makes me hold her hand. So you don’t lose yourself like she did, Ama tells me. Her fingers are tight on mine every time we pass a boy my age, as if she is afraid their gravity will pull me out of her orbit.
After I tell Ama I like girls instead of boys, she goes three days without saying a word. Finally, shesits me down at the kitchen table and makes me prick my fingers on her sewing needles. The two of us stare at the little red crescents bleeding their way through the tablecloth. Maybe it’s better this way, she says after a long pause. You don’t have to worry about breaking your own heart. You just have to worry about breaking mine.