Every spring, for Qingming festival, my husband and I returned to Old Egg, a spit of land between Qingdao and the sea, where our girls were buried.
We had found them in the bellies of Qingdao’s gutters, some wrapped in newspaper like fish, others swaddled in plastic bags. We watched out for the spots by the road where other people gave a wide berth, avoiding the pockets of dead, discarded daughters. Each was the size of a cabbage, wrinkled blue around the edges, with notes tucked underneath explaining why it had to be done or just saying sorry.
We secreted them, one by one, to Old Egg, where we were born, so they could know what it was like to have a home. We buried them, side by side, among wolfberries and chicory and squatting seagulls, laid down pebbles that Xiao carved with a number for each.
Eight pebbles in all. We gave girl number two a necklace of coins and red string. For girl number seven, I braided her lush tuft of hair and left it to grow according to its own seasons. Girl number five still had her umbilical cord wrapped around her middle like a spindly tail. Girl number four’s skin was so pale she reminded me of a family of toadstools sprouting in wooded calmness.
And girl number eight was still breathing when we found her. But, after she too died, no matter how we coaxed her to take the teat of a dropper or paddled her back or sang, Xiao refused to get out of bed.
“We should have taken her to the hospital,” he addressed to the uncaring wall.
“We talked about that. Remember? They would have asked so many questions. We would have been blamed, reported, sued …” I trailed off.
(What exactly, they would have wanted to know, their imaginations running roughshod over our backs, were you planning on doing with her?
We found her. We cared for her. We meant no harm. You see, we have no children of our own.
As though that would have made them bob their heads in understanding and let us go.)
Xiao shifted slightly, nudging my hand off his leg, letting me know all that would have been worth it if she had lived. We fell asleep, knees pointing away, heels pressed together.
I dreamt of the last one, girl number eight. Maybe because she had clung on for an entire week, crying every night, those stubborn tiny lungs that made Xiao and I feel like real parents, frayed and sniping at each other over bulging diapers. Maybe because we had made the mistake of naming her. We called her Lin, mostly in our heads, sometimes aloud, the word a gumdrop on our tongues, and we couldn’t help smiling, two wrinkled fools.
I dreamt Lin had full cheeks, a black sense of humor, Xiao’s generosity, my pragmatism, our love of chewing raw peppercorns. She would become a doctor or dancer or both. Let me try, she’d beg and Xiao would relent, handing over a thimble of maotai. Of course her face would scrunch in dismay; she’d suck on sugar cubes to get rid of the sting. She would never walk her bike up a hill but stand up and pedal the whole way, faster than the boys, skirt pillowing like clouds. Lin would go to Paris with her friends and tell us everything when she came back, her eyes still aflame from the city’s lights.
I dreamt she tipped her arms out, reaching, so close.
Watch! Are you watching?
I dreamt she came from the chasms and peaks inside me. From us.
No more after her. We accepted blindness, like everyone else. It hurt a lot less that way.
“Lin,” Xiao said, bending down as best as his knees would allow, brushing away crabgrass and his tears, hunting for the eighth pebble. I unpacked the food we brought – buckwheat congee, mashed pears, almond milk imported from overseas that neither of us ever thought to buy for ourselves. Xiao arranged the offerings in a half-moon and, with his hat, swept clean our family plot. We knelt and mumbled under our breath for them to eat up, the food was here, sustenance for eight gummy mouths, eat, eat, eat. We clapped once, twice, miming with our palms the embrace we wished we could give our daughters, and looked down.
In a few years, Old Egg would dissolve into sand and froth. So would the girls. So would we. But, for now, we reminded them to share, no squabbling, be good, wait for us, wait a little longer, we’ll see you soon.
At night, when the only sound in your office is the cleaning lady’s vacuum, when the overhead lights click off and you have to pinwheel your arms wildly for them to click back on, you give in to the screech of loneliness trapped in your chest and re-download all the dating apps. You begin to sift through all the strangers, the first dates you’ll pick off like scabs.
One of them reminds you of your high school math teacher, Mr. Elroy. You liked him because he ordered post-midterms pizza, knew the lyrics to all the boy-band hymns, reminisced about a trip to Phuket with an ex-girlfriend, stayed late to help you with your college application essays, took you out for pancakes afterwards, gave you a ride home. You wonder where he is now, whether he ever left Westchester, if he remembers your name. You haven’t thought about him in years.
You realize you are around the same age as he was when he put a hand on your thigh right before you clambered out of his car.
Maybe that’s not true, you have thought about Mr. Elroy since then. Flecks of him always surface randomly. Like the golden fuzz on some boy’s knuckles as you both reach for the subway pole. Or the way your roommate’s mouth levers up and down as she eats your half of Denny’s pancakes. You can’t help but recall the syrup huddling in the corners of Mr. Elroy’s lips as he kept talking about how Syracuse would be a perfect fit for you.
“They get too much snow up there,” you protested. He chuckled at the frivolity of picking a school based solely on the weather, but that was important to you, more so than the academics or the professor-to-student ratio or the dining options, you wanted to go to class in shorts and skirts year-round.
“No, give it some more thought.” Mr. Elroy frowned, turning serious. After all, it was your future you needed to consider.
Your thumb hovers over his face. You imagine pressing down and swiping right over the name. The first date will be a disaster, you are sure of it, because you will be too distracted by how much he looks like Mr. Elroy. And how Mr. Elroy leaned over just as you reached for the door handle.
“Don’t forget what I told you. Talk it through with your parents.”
“Sure,” you said, yanking your skirt down over your legs, over the tiny gasp of a mosquito bite that never quite healed. He touched it, through the fabric, and the meaning that his fingers conveyed swallowed you whole.
“Syracuse. It’s a great school. You’ll be happy there.”
“Thanks, Mr. Elroy. And thanks for the ride.” You were taught to say thank you every time, particularly for things you did not deserve.
“Of course. Happy to help.” He was about to say more when the handle unlatched under your thumb and his hand skittered away. Climbing up the lawn, skewing a little from side to side, you turned around once to wave, polite to the very end, your breath making little ghosts in the air.
The lights click off again. In the half-moon glow of your phone, you delete the apps one by one for the hundredth time. As they spasm and vanish, you remember how his breath smelled like milk on the edge of curdling, his fingers pressing down to make a dimple on your skirt, your lips scrunching halfway between a smile and a sob, the latch was stuck and wouldn’t give no matter how hard you pulled, the damp sticky hug of his car. You remember him, you remember it all.