They would've worn silk kimonos if they were older. Instead, they wear barrettes, the color of pearl, the silver clasps cleaned with toothpaste by Jun's mother; white camisole shirts that are yellowing near their Mandarin collars; cartoon character-covered towels that were converted into skirts that reach their ankles. Bao doesn’t know that her towels and accessories are missing. That is not all she's overlooking these days.
Bao makes paper flower bouquets for the girls in the neighborhood, when their birthdays come around. The crunching sound of the flowers is soothing to Jun, and every petal and fold her mother creates seems real. Bao uses accordion folding, crinkling the sheets into triangles that are larger than her daughter's nose. After twisting the tissue paper onto a pipe cleaner, she fluffs the flowers like a tender gardener. They blossom in her careful clutch, Bao playing up the volume of pink gardenias, protecting the untouched shade of white lilies, and bringing out the red of roses while collecting them into green wraps. Bao's artful arrangements leave Jun in constant admiration. Jun never thought paper could be so pretty.
The paper bouquets could be multi-purpose too. Jun hands lilies to Ming, and roses to Cho, which are fitting for her friends' personalities. Ming cries at the sight of road kill, swearing she recognizes the poor creatures from somewhere, innocent in her alliance with the flat and faceless. Cho craves perfection, is brassy at her best, and walks up to their church's graveyard to find and share goofy names with them. They are ideal for Jun's plan, a balance of sweetness and bravery that will get her through this. It is a funeral, which must be done after breakfast but before lunch. Any other time frame might lead to interruptions from unexpected visitors.
Their guests are the silent type, respectful mourners. They take in the girls' preparation with their plastic eyes and furry stomachs. Their grieving positions were chosen with care, and Jun thinks up individual reactions for them: the rhino has a runny nose; her orange elephant won't forget today; the giraffe is so stoic that he doesn't cry and can barely move. They line the pink window seat opposite her canopy bed, the makeshift funerary arch. Her brother loved animals. Someone has to remember that, and it looks like it will be Jun.
They decorated the coffin—a shoe box with fingerprints on the sides and its original price tag scratched out—with crayon art. Ming drew a lake with swans, where you can only see the gold bills of the birds on the white box. Cho made a black terrier with even legs and gave him a proper name tag. She dubbed him Dusky. Jun contributed a panda chewing bamboo because she promised Hao-Ling they'd go to Beijing together when they were old enough to buy plane tickets and knew enough Chinese. Most of the Chinese she does know is courtesy of her mother doling out several odd phrases as delicately as dandelion seeds waltzing in the wind. The phrases parachute down, quickly into her ears, and their beauty is heard for a fleeting moment.
Jun picks up the baby doll to be placed in the coffin. He's passed around, the girls placing kisses on his forehead. Jun's hair sweeps his nose. The placeholder for Hao-Ling feels more human than he looks. Maybe it's his porcelain skin, the cool temperature of his cheeks, and the moan elicited from his body when Jun bends his legs back and forth. She only bent them to make his body fit into the box. The efforts prove useless. His feet hover over the edge. He deserves far better.
Cho places the coffin on the bed and the sight is too much for Ming who buries her nose in her lilies.
"I don't want to do this," she says.
"Hao-Ling didn't get a funeral," says Jun.
"Everybody has to have a funeral, even if we get it wrong," says Cho.
"What if his ghost comes back?" says Ming. "If we do something wrong, I mean?"
"Then that will make it more interesting," says Cho, considering the possibility with a smile.
Ming weeps a little more, wiping her nose with her yellow collar.
Once removed from the cage, their chosen bird put up a fight. Ping joked it was because he wasn't wearing his pith helmet.
The macaws Jun saw with Hao-Ling two years ago had brilliant yellow collars, and bright green feathers that were thick as moss. Their father, Ping, had picked a new pastime for that summer. He had read that Teddy Roosevelt kept macaws, and he wished to emulate any President who was not only intelligent, but also adventurous. Ping took his two little voyagers to Critters Caravan and the trio traveled down an aisle packed with fowl.
Once removed from the cage, their chosen bird put up a fight. Ping joked it was because he wasn't wearing his pith helmet. The pet store employee went into detail about the bird's diet and its other needs. Meanwhile, Jun and Hao-Ling roamed the aisles, passing orphan puppies who appeared too eager, kittens who cared more for grooming than for them, and a snake tonguing the glass of its case. Jun loved how it slithered and showed off its bumpy belly. Hao-Ling believed they could take it home if his sister could wrest the case open since she had bigger hands. She tried, but could not. They attempted to think of an alternative plan to sneak out the snake before snack time, but their father found them and introduced the macaw as Sandy.
During the week Sandy was with them, more a visitor than a pet, their mother fed him more than their father. Sandy cheeped her discontent whenever she was left alone. Ping said that he understood why birds were left in the wild, because the macaw required more of a commitment from him than his wife. Hao-Ling showed his commitment. He was the only person to say goodnight to Sandy the entire week. Jun watched him talk with Sandy from the kitchen and led her brother to bed when their discussions were finished.
"Is it over yet?" asks Ming.
"No," says Cho. "Somebody has to say some memories."
"He didn’t have any," says Jun.
What memories would a four-year-old have? He isn’t there to say them. She couldn't remember much about when she was four, so chances are that Hao-Ling would have had no clue. Maybe Cho was telling her that other people should share their memories of Hao Ling. It was a typical thing to do at funerals, though she'd never done it herself.
"My mother doesn’t say anything about him," says Jun.
"You didn't tell her we were having a funeral?" says Cho. "You really are a scaredy-cat. But it might be for the best. Sometimes when your mom talks, I don't understand her."
Cho's tone mirrors that of the doctor who told their family the news, a tone of authority mixed with guilt. Hao-Ling came to the world healthy and three years later, he left the physician's office dying. They took him in for two appointments within a week to examine a painful rash and a nasty bruise on his back that sprang up suddenly. No one thought the two were connected. Jun couldn't find any connections as their father drove, couldn't find them when they came back home.
She sat on the floor as her father sat stiff in his recliner, sniffling at the same time as her mother, whose tears were collecting in her shaking palms. Jun asked question after question and was met with no response. The doctor gave them some pamphlets with information that she could track down. She would hunt for words, like her father, only he was a writer and she was only seven.
The one word that kept reappearing was tricky for her to figure out. She split the word into two parts, leuke and mia, writing them on her dry erase board. They sounded like Luke and Mia. She thought they were two friends who'd be coming over for a play date with Hao-Ling. The whole thing made less sense and she wiped the words away. She returned the pamphlets to her father's desk.
Bao called her oldest child into her bedroom the next day. She told Jun she had to be careful with Hao-Ling from now on. Jun thought it was because he was three years old and the bruise had yet to disappear. Peeping into the hallway, she saw Ping taking certain items from his son's room, things she knew Hao-Ling would hate to see removed. The anime-inspired plush toys were set aside. His plastic potato man, with the hat that Hao-Ling loved to cram into the spud head, was plucked off the nursery shelves. Hao-Ling's old superhero sheets flew from his bed. Bao told Jun that they didn't want him to get hurt. Jun thought they were doing more damage than good by taking his toys, reading the words Good and will on an empty box. She said she'd be good and watch over Hao-Ling, not knowing why.
Sometimes Jun pretends to ignore her mother when she is called to converse with the regulars, who simply remark on how big Jun has gotten.
"I don't understand her, either," says Jun.
"My mother sounds the same," says Ming. "It's just how she talks."
When Bao talks with her customers at the cleaner's, her accent is strong and they usually have to read her lips. Her mother is quick to forget the tiny words, particularly "the." She forgets grammar as easily as Jun does when she's not bothering with her class lessons. Sometimes Jun pretends to ignore her mother when she is called to converse with the regulars, who simply remark on how big Jun has gotten. Her second-grade books always manage to insert the "the" without any trouble. She doesn't get why her mother can't.
There are other things Bao can't do, chief among them being that she won't go into Hao-Ling’s bedroom anymore. Jun caught her mother pressing her palms against the wall near his door, like she could walk through the wall if she pushed hard enough. Jun thought that if the sewn dragon on Bao's pants touched the light socket, there'd be a spark and it would look like the dragon was breathing fire on the silk, her pants engulfed in a tiny flame. Jun stopped staring and joined her father in the kitchen to fill wontons.
Ping dispensed soy sauce into two and he let Jun do the next two after him. She asked him what they were going to do with Hao-Ling's room, which made Ping drop a wonton. He fetched it and said that Bao wasn't ready to go in there yet. This didn't surprise Jun.
However, Bao surprised her every now and then. A year before Hao-Ling was diagnosed, she took them to Dutch Wonderland, Pennsylvania’s popular amusement park. It was large and Jun was amused since Bao didn't tell them where they were going. Jun and Hao-Ling stared in wonder at the roller-coasters racing recklessly along the aerial loops. Costumed princesses greeted them, their teeth white and their mouths painted cherry. Kids whirred pinwheels with their breath and ate funnel cake without asking what a funnel was, while adults ambled from spot to spot, leading their group by brochure.
Jun and Hao-Ling went to the table full of different shades of sand where the employee taught them how to make sand people with glass bodies. The bodies resembled small vases. Portions of sand in various hues filled the glassy figures. Hao-Ling let his first body slip through his grasp and it shattered on the ground. He cried and tried to touch the fallen bits. Bao slapped his hand away and it made Hao-Ling cry more intensely until a fresh, new body was put in front of him. Then he acted like nothing had happened and started filling the new body. The bodies were topped with Einstein-esque tufts of hair, given bulgy eyes and cotton ball noses. Bao meticulously wiped the bodies and her children's hands once they were done. Bao having antiseptic wipes was as reliable as the sun showing itself.
"Can't have germs," said Bao as she washed their fingers. "Yes. Stay clean."
"I don't like the wipes," said Jun.
They were sticky and she couldn't hold her sand creature. Her mother's mouth became tight and she ran a hand through Jun's bangs.
"Children don't know best," said Bao. "Here. I carry sand men for you and Hao-Ling."
"I want to carry it. It's mine," said Jun.
"I give him seat of honor in my bag pocket," said Bao. "That way, everybody see him in a special place."
Bao never took art lightly. Her sewing machine never showed a speck of dirt. Her paper-mache was sorted according to size and durability. She rescued cast-off bits of ribbon and cloth to use in her art projects. So Jun believed Bao. Of course, Hao-Ling requested that his sand creature go in, too. A few kids pointed to the crafts while they walked through the park. Jun held her head high from the merry-go-round to the exit because she loved the attention. Bao let the bag rest in Jun’s lap once they were in the car. Her mother grinned at her in the rear view mirror and Jun buckled her seat belt. Bao didn't have to tell her to do it.
His small shoes dangled, pointing to the dust. He waved to Jun. Jun and her mother witnessed the rest of Hao-Ling’s West—the gangly newborn lambs, the goats sashaying around the circle, and the mule who meekly courted their attention, swishing its tail.
Jun is not sure what to do as Hao-Ling's replacement lies in his rectangular tomb. She has no set of instructions and has been left to improvise. The only fact that is clear is that this improvised funeral is her mother's fault. Men, kind men, came to their house and sat on their living room couch a few months ago. They asked Bao what to do, if she and Ping would like a private memorial service or a more public event. Her parents were shown possible programs with beautiful calligraphy and talked about two dates, Hao-Ling's birth and death. Jun later located a blank one that had fallen under the couch. Bao said for them to leave her alone. The men didn't return, but they seemed more willing to honor Hao-Ling's memory than her mother did. Jun crept from her bedroom that night and slept where she thought Bao had last thought about Hao-Ling's death, where Bao sat across from the men on the couch cushions.
When her head was facing the cushions, Jun remembered that the highest place she ever saw Hao-Ling was on the back of a pony, a stranger leading the little horse around the dusty pen. Ping was following them, new sandals on his feet and a video camera firmly in his grip at the pony's side. They were in a petting zoo and the American flag blanket on the pony immediately caught her father's eye. He said Hao-Ling could pretend he was from the old Wild West. That was more her father's dream. He could be a Chinese cowboy, a Mandarin-speaking maverick for whom the sheriff was no match. Ping often entertained those pretend trips through time but Jun believed that Hao-Ling dreamt them, too. Why else would Hao-Ling mercilessly kick the pony's hindquarters with his ankles, his face level with the tips of the fence posts?
His small shoes dangled, pointing to the dust. He waved to Jun. Jun and her mother witnessed the rest of Hao-Ling's West—the gangly newborn lambs, the goats sashaying around the circle, and the mule who meekly courted their attention, swishing its tail. Hao-Ling was at the center of it all. He was king of the West for 15 minutes.
"Time's running out," says Cho, tapping her Snoopy watch.
"Shouldn't we have music?" says Ming. "There's music at these things."
There are only three tunes Jun has perfectly memorized: "Happy Birthday," "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and the theme song to Sesame Street. None of them are religious or sad. Her mother doesn't let her listen to any other types of music. Bao insists the songs today are too vulgar. This makes music more interesting to Jun. Her mother must be hiding it from her.
The day before she planned the funeral, Jun went into her parents' bedroom to find the missing music. She knocked on furniture to hear any lyrical echoes and waded through her mother's drawer to search for any signs of buried melodies. She did find a music box. It was plain and brown but it worked when she opened it, playing a melody she heard Bao sing to Hao-Ling once. The lullaby was in Mandarin, so neither she nor Hao-Ling could understand it. Despite the incomprehensible language, Hao-Ling was lulled to sleep. Jun touched the green velvet bottom of the music box and wondered if her mother sang that to Hao-Ling when he was in the hospital, to sing him into an eternal sleep. Perhaps Bao sang him away so that Jun couldn't offer him a new song their mother didn't know.
Cho takes the initiative and hums a song they learned in Sunday School. Ming and Jun join in. The doll's eyes shine.
"Jun, I think you should give a speech now," says Cho. "It has to be really good."
"Maybe start with 'dearly beloved, we are gathered here' since pastors say that a lot," says Ming.
"Dearly beloved," begins Jun. "We are gathered here today . . . is that right?"
"My aunt was carrying a bouquet in the church last week, and those were the words I heard," says Ming.
"Was her mother there?" asks Jun.
"Yes," says Ming. "And she was happy."
"That has to be a wedding," says Cho. "Mothers aren't happy at funerals. Was there a cake with two people on top?"
"There was a cake like that," replies Ming.
"Then, it was a wedding." Cho sighs. "How could you mix up the two?"
"The mother was crying, though," says Ming.
"We'll settle this," says Cho, turning to Jun. "What did your mother do, Jun, when your brother died?"
"She stared in another direction without looking at me," says Jun.
Jun and Luli, Ming's mother, were waiting for news, mist rolling onto the windowpanes. Luli volunteered to watch Jun because Hao-Ling was taken to the emergency room the night before. The mist came on consecutive mornings. It returned again, while Hao-Ling didn't. Ping said he'd take care of the funeral preparations, as if this was something they could prepare themselves for. Bao went straight to the study, with Luli silently leaving the room.
The study was where Ping wrote travel essays. There were globes in two corners, a blue and green one and a strictly brown one. You could read the names of places you never knew existed or spin the globe to make it seem less stationary. Photographs of jungles, pyramids, and coliseums lined the area above his writing surface. Ping would receive magazines in the mail and ask Jun where she’d like to travel most based on the pictures. She usually chose places that were as far away from home as possible. Hao-Ling would watch in silence since he didn't grasp the game. He did have some of his father's adventurous spirit, though, because he'd go all around the house and appear surprised with every room he ran into, until Ping would tell him that that was enough for today. If Bao wanted to search for Hao-Ling, to imagine where death had taken him, the study was the right spot.
Bao stared beyond the window with her eyes blinking at the blurry backyard. Jun stood in front of the chair and stared too. She imagined walking with Hao-Ling that summer, behind their house. They lived in Woodlow Estates. The neighborhood lived up to its name. They couldn't go anywhere without wandering over some wood and twigs cracking under their sneakers. Jun pulled her brother forward, confident about which way to go. Petals sank into the arms of fallen branches. Cicadas crawled in the crevices of brambles. They paused at the end of their yard and ventured to a small lapping brook several steps ahead. Someone had dropped a napkin near the brook. Hao-Ling touched it. They took it up together and set it in the water, and watched its brittle body break in the brook as the stones tore it apart. The pieces sank to the bottom and they walked home, hand in hand, their afternoon journey the last of its kind. She hugged her mother, as if the vision could be shared with Bao by touch. Bao grunted and didn't move. The mist rolled on and then it was just the two of them.
A lump in her mother’s throat slides from her chin to the end of her neck. Jun can feel the lump, only because one travels down her throat as well. It doesn’t want to budge.
"Your mother was probably afraid to cry," says Ming. "Some people think it's not good to do it."
"What would you know about it?" says Cho. "You cry about everything."
"I do not!" cries Ming.
Jun hears her mother’s slippers shuffle against the carpet and into the room. Jun's eyes fall. Cho tries to hide her barrette by removing the towel from her waist and wrapping it above her brow. Ming copies her.
The towels won't hide the bouquets, their workmanship recognizable and Jun's theft of them obvious to Bao.
"What this?" asks Bao.
Jun chews on her fingernail to delay an answer. It only bothers her mother more.
"Ah!" says Bao, taking Jun's hand from her mouth.
"It's a funeral," says Jun.
Her mother’s gaze goes from Jun to the doll reclining in the coffin, its skull now sideways.
"Why you use my flowers for this?" says Bao.
"We needed a piece of you," says Jun. "Hao-Ling would've liked them."
Bao folds her arms, her fingers twitching. During the construction of the bouquets, there wasn't a hint of a twitch. The strength of the tissue paper and the detail of the petals would've suffered. Her mother couldn't afford to let anybody down because of her unsteady fingers.
"These for happy moments," says Bao, taking Jun's bouquet from her.
The green wrap that secures them rustles loudly, but it's not as loud as the thoughts that cloud Jun's mind. They had many happy moments with Hao-Ling. Why won't Bao acknowledge those, acknowledge that they're gone?
"How come you have forgotten those?" says Jun. "Hao-Ling was happy most of the time. How come you don't mention him?"
A lump in her mother's throat slides from her chin to the end of her neck. Jun can feel the lump, only because one travels down her throat as well. It doesn't want to budge.
"You're bad girl," says Bao.
Her mother walks away, leaving Jun to cry, the tears falling on the fabric of her camisole.
"Does this mean the funeral's over?" whispers Ming to Cho.
"Jun's too upset to do the speech," replies Cho.
As usual, Cho is right, yet Jun won't tell them. She unclips her barrette and walks to the bathroom across the hall. Turning on the sink, she lets the faucet fill her hands with water and washes her face. Ping sticks his head in the door, a camera hanging from his neck. She smiles. He'd just been in San Francisco, visiting her grandparents, and always made her room his first stop when he returned. He must have seen her duck into the bathroom.
"Jun-Jun!" he calls her, a nickname that made her feel younger.
She's grateful she dried all the tears from her face, because she can clearly see the gift he presents to her. It is a red packet for her New Year's money. They regularly spent the New Year with Ping's parents, who were always generous. Last New Year, she and Hao-Ling sat on the sidewalks in anticipation of the spectacle that would light her grandparents' part of the city. It was Hao-Ling's final fireworks. The confetti from the parade earlier shifted on the street, the wind taking care of the cleanup. Hao-Ling grew tired during the parade, but was looking forward to the fireworks. They didn't disappoint. The pop of the fireworks sounded, the golden streams spangling the sky, the lines of light fell in the distance. Her whole family applauded. Bao counted off until each firework would appear and Hao-Ling would join in midway through. With each burst he was in awe.
The memory of Hao-Ling's widened mouth inspires Jun to part her lips as she touches the gift from her grandparents.
"I got a packet for Hao-Ling, too," shares Ping.
Jun views another red packet in his grasp and nods. Her father's eyes grow wet, giving her a look of warmth.
"It'll be like he's with us," says Ping.
"You remembered," says Jun.
"Your mother reminded me to get one for Hao-Ling," says Ping.
"She said his name?" says Jun.
"Yes," says Ping, rubbing her cheek.
"She never used to," says Jun.
"It's tough for her," says Ping. "Go tell your mother I brought dinner home, hmmm?"
Her mother isn't in her parents' bedroom. Jun peeks inside her own room, where Cho and Ming argue about where each stuffed animal went. The funeral was over before it really began. After his death a few months ago, Hao-Ling was cremated, and her parents slipped away one day to spread his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean. It was where they met, Ping doing an article on local merchants in Atlantic City, and finding Bao tie-dying for her own pleasure in her mother's laundromat. They spent their honeymoon in Atlantic City, too. Her father told Jun it was where they felt most in love. Perhaps they needed to spread the ashes there because they were saying goodbye to what their love made. Jun wonders if it was love that kept them from bringing her along. What if they didn't want their daughter to have to watch her brother being blown away?
Jun finally finds Bao in the study. Bao is in the same chair she sat in when Hao-Ling didn't come home with her. Her slippers are off. The paper bouquet rests in her lap. Jun unwraps the towel from her waist and lets it fall to the floor. She approaches her mother, who does not look at her. Bao's lips quiver. It is the only part of her that isn't still. Jun takes the bouquet before climbing into her mother's lap. She takes Bao's right hand, and folds her mother's fingers on top of hers to join them.
"I'm sorry," says Jun as they hold the bouquet together.
"You okay," says Bao, practically a whisper. "You really not such a bad girl."
Jun presses the flowers to her chest. The petals crumple in their closed fists.