“Don’t use scissors,” her mother said, untangling Chrysanthemum’s fingers from the rings and taking the blades. “You don’t want to cut . . .”
She left the sentence unfinished and tucked the scissors back in the drawer, as though saying the rest out loud might cut the baby from Chrysanthemum.
The warning had a dash of fermented white pepper in it, layered and aged, a little funky. Chrysanthemum could taste the words other people wanted her to keep. Sometimes, it was just a hint of a flavor; other times, the eating was a whole-body experience. Her mother had called it a gift, one that appeared in their family every several generations, and was proud that it was her daughter who embodied the family legend. While Chrysanthemum appreciated having a different way of experiencing the world and the deeper connection it brought to other people’s insights, lately, the gift felt more like a curse.
“How am I going to get the nursery ready without using scissors?”
“Ask your husband to rip these open. If I can do it, so can he.” Her mom grabbed a nearby box and yanked at a taped cardboard flap. She tugged it several times before it tore open. “Or he can cut them in a different room.”
“So many rules,” Chrysanthemum said. “I should be able to do this myself.” Butterfly flutters rippled under the skin of her belly. How many layers of skin and tissue are there between us? she thought. She was still tentative about the sensation and hoped this time the movements would last.
“Just listen to your Ma. I know things,” her mom said. She smelled of the red dates and ginger prenatal stew she had been cooking all morning.
Chrysanthemum sat and leaned back into a wicker chair. She surveyed the nursery. There was still a lot to buy and more to unpack before the room would be ready for her baby. She worried whether it was still too early. She’d made it to 21 weeks before, when she had lost her son. Now, Chrysanthemum imagined a border encircling this child, keeping them safe from everything, even from herself. She believed that her present actions could change her child forever.
Some of her mother’s things were still stacked in a corner. A few weeks before, when Chrysanthemum and her husband were discussing where to put the nursery, her mother had given up her room for the baby and had moved to the smaller room. “I am old and don’t need to take up as much space,” she had said.
Chrysanthemum grabbed a bottle from the floor. A faint crack preceded the sound of release. But before she could bring the sparkling water to her lips, her mother came over and pointed to the bottle in Chrysanthemum’s hand.
“No cold drinks, remember.” Her mom’s voice was crispy fried eggs.
“This is barely cold.” The words swirled around in Chrysanthemum’s mouth. She chewed and felt the sharp edges of the letter “N” against her cheeks and the smooth texture of the letter “O” rolling on her tongue. “Cold drinks” had a minty undertone.
“Better to be safe.”
The pressure pushed against her tongue and slid down her throat. She swallowed it all, every last letter. Then, Chrysanthemum rolled her eyes and handed the still-full bottle over.
As her mom left the room, Chrysanthemum’s belly swelled, a little fuller.
Chrysanthemum consumed admonitions not to eat watermelon, dark-colored foods, or coconut water, so that her blood circulation wouldn’t slow and her baby wouldn’t have dark skin (as if she cared). She ate warnings not to pet the dog or hammer nails so that she wouldn’t get ill or harm her baby’s spirit. Every superstition and piece of unsolicited advice resounded in her mouth. Over time, the pressure got easier to swallow. Chrysanthemum took all the “don’ts” to heart, and to stomach. Her belly grew so fast people thought she was growing twins.
“I’ve never been this bloated or uncomfortable before. But I’ve also never eaten this many words before,” she said as she rolled to her other side so her husband could massage her back. The overwhelming quantity of words she had been eating was causing abnormal cramping, rib pains, and a newfound nausea. To her doctors, they were part of the normal—though very wide-ranging—realm of pregnancy symptoms, but Chrysanthemum knew it was more than that.
“Can you get them to stop? Especially your mom?” her husband asked as his palm pressed circles into her skin.
“Ha, how? Like I can just say stop and she’ll listen?”
“Yeah, maybe. You’re too afraid to even ask them to stop. Maybe they’ll understand.” Air or words, she could feel something trapped in her and winced at the pain.
“You don’t get it. You didn’t grow up with this.” Her husband’s parents instilled in him the freedom to speak his mind, while her family saw direct questioning and talking back as disrespectful.
“No, I didn’t, but you don’t have to internalize all the advice. I can see the toll it’s taking on you. You feel anxious before social gatherings, you can barely eat any real food, you question every sharp thing you touch, and you can’t sleep.” His words were fizzy pomegranate lemonade, sweet and acidic.
“But what if I do something wrong? Or miss something important? What if last time I could’ve done something different?”
Her husband wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. The weight of his arm against her promised safety. “It wasn’t your fault. Remember what the doctor said? Miscarriages are common.” In these moments of guilt, her husband always reminded her that it wasn’t her fault, but his reassurances were not enough to shield her from the abundance of advice that filled her with “what ifs.”
“No, it’s not my body’s fault, but everyone is telling me it is.”
Ignoring her mother’s advice the last time had not kept her baby safe. Maybe this time it would. Chrysanthemum was given even more to digest this pregnancy—as if more precautions could protect this child. “This time,” everyone seemed to say, “it will be different.”
Chrysanthemum could feel an air bubble trying to make its way up. The nausea was a thick cloud rumbling under her chest. “Can you pat me?” It had worked before.
He beat a steady rhythm against her upper back. The bedroom lights were off so Chrysanthemum could relax—only the glow from the bathroom light spilled in. Every few seconds, the diffuser pushed puffs of lavender mist into the air. Despite all these things, every muscle in Chrysanthemum’s body felt tense.
“I’m worried this has turned into something more than you can handle, something that’s hurting you,” he said.
“It might be worth it if our child still exists.”
She craved the smallest relief, just for some air to escape. But there was only the continual drum of her husband’s hand and the growing pain in her abdomen.
Chrysanthemum examined her swollen legs and feet, which were propped up on the pillow-stacked ottoman. They looked alien, distended by the extra pressure from both her growing womb and the words she had been eating. Her once-prominent veins, which her husband used to trace like lines on a map, were now hidden underneath the plump, ballooning skin.
Staring at a body that wasn’t fully hers, a body forever changed, Chrysanthemum cried. She sobbed until her upper body spasmed with hiccups.
She had made it to 33 weeks, which should be something to celebrate. It seemed she was always holding her breath, waiting for something to go wrong.
You are something to celebrate, she exhaled deeply. She repeated the words to her child until her breathing was more even, and her body was more relaxed. Then she dried her face.
“Come bai bai.” Her mom appeared, offering a hand to help lift Chrysanthemum up.
“I have to rest my legs for a little longer.”
“You can do it after. All the food is ready to offer now.” Baskets of vibrant oranges, pears, and mangos, plates of stir-fried lettuce and green beans, bowls of rice, and an entire roast duck filled the altar, which itself occupied most of the living room. When she moved in years ago, Chrysanthemum’s mom was adamant that the altar should live in the heart of the home and face the front door, to better guard and protect the house.
Chrysanthemum never liked to bai bai. The smoke from the incense made her sneeze. Kneeling at the altar was even more uncomfortable now that her body was swollen and “sour.” “Sore” and “sour” were homophones in her mother’s native language, but “sour” felt more accurate to Chrysanthemum. She imagined an acidic, decaying ache deep in her bones.
She never knew quite what to say in her silent prayers. Sometimes she would visualize the character for “bai” until her mother’s chants were done. The hànzi looked like two hands reaching to touch each other, one side slightly bowed toward the other.
“Listen to me, this will help.”
“Not now. I’m tired.”
“You’ve been listening to me more this time and your pregnancy is going good.”
“You call this good?”
“Is it not?”
Chrysanthemum swung her legs down, pushed herself off the couch. “Look at my feet! My legs! There are bulges in my belly!”
“That’s all from pregnancy. Let’s bai bai. Ask Guan Yin for better health and a good birth. And then after I can cook some—”
“No, I’m extra swollen and nauseous and stressed all the time because I keep eating all your words. Look at what you’re doing to me,” Chrysanthemum said. She knew it wasn’t right to place the full blame on her mother, but she was tired of the onus being on her, of having her child’s outcome hinge on her every decision and indecision.
“I also had to listen in order to protect my babies. If something is happening to you, it’s because you are not listening to me.”
“All I’ve been doing is listening!” Chrysanthemum felt nauseous and lightheaded.
“That’s not true. You kneel, but you don’t pray. You nod your head, but you don’t accept. You shower in the mornings. You still drink cold drinks when I’m not around.”
“You’ve been spying on me?”
“The more you put yourself first, the harder it’ll be for your child to love you.” Her mom’s punishing sentence wrapped around Chrysanthemum and tightened before sliding into her mouth. Her warning was a warty bitter melon.
Chrysanthemum felt a sharp cramp and cradled her abdomen. Her skin visibly bulged. The additional lump twitched on her already gorged belly. Warmth oozed from inside her. She went to the toilet and found a small streak of bright red on her underwear. Her heart pounded in her ears against the sound of her mother calling for help.
At the hospital, the doctors ordered bed rest. They assured Chrysanthemum that she and the baby were safe, but the directive was a coat of black sesame paste; it spread thickly across her tongue.
“No more,” she thought. She would obey no more.
To pass the time on bed rest, Chrysanthemum read stories out loud to her almost-born child while her husband finished the nursery. As she read, he flattened the crib sheet with care and rolled up receiving blankets and put them in the dresser. He hung up tiny rompers in the closet.
Chrysanthemum often added or changed the stories and myths from her childhood. She found comfort in offering her own morals and in choosing which words to keep and which to rewrite.
She told her baby about the Jade Rabbit, who plunged herself into fire and offered her body as food to a starving old man. As a reward, the old man sent her to the moon to keep the Moon Goddess company. Don’t sacrifice yourself, Chrysanthemum told her baby, or you’ll be stuck on the moon forever.
Sometimes her husband joined in. He made her stories his own. Together they read about Sai Weng, an old man who lived on China’s northern border, whose fortunes and misfortunes constantly shifted. After losing one of his prized horses, it returned with a second beautiful horse, but when his son took the new horse for a ride, he broke his leg. And because of the broken leg, his son was spared a year later, when all able-bodied men had to fight in the war. “What is fortune when everyone around you has died in the war? How can we interpret good and bad?” her husband added.
In the fable where Ye Xian befriended a gold-eyed fish, who was later devoured by Ye Xian’s cruel stepfamily, the mother’s spirit consoled Ye Xian and granted her wishes through the magical fish bones. The bones were both dead and alive, fish and mother. Even after death, I will still be a mother.
“There are other versions of this book where the fish had nothing to do with Ye Xian’s mother,” Chrysanthemum said.
“I like this version,” her husband said, while folding the tiniest pair of mittens into an even tinier rectangle and tucking it into a drawer. “It feels full circle. Her mother was and always will be with Ye Xian.”
The story of her babies and body was a story Chrysanthemum wasn’t sure how to retell, let alone finish. She considered how she had already been changed—by her incongruous loss, her mother’s words, her almost mythical “gift” passed down through generations.
“We’re never just ourselves,” she said to him, but she was also speaking to her child. She considered how she would carry remnants of her children beyond birth. Cells had and would continue to transform her. Her child, now at 35 weeks, would carry remnants of her beyond infancy, just as Chrysanthemum carried her mother’s cells within her.
The thought of their child changing her body in this profound way didn’t scare her, though. In fact, she found it beautiful, a word she hadn’t associated with her transforming body in months.
There was a knock on the half-opened nursery door. For the first time, her mother stood on the other side of the threshold, waiting to be invited inside.
“Come in,” Chrysanthemum said.
“I have something for you,” her mother said. Her steps were soft and steady. She smelled of the healing mushrooms and bone marrow soup that she was cooking for Chrysanthemum. Her palms cradled an indigo velvet pouch. She loosened the cord and slid out a bracelet braided with rainbow strings. “This was blessed and given to me by a monk for protection when I was pregnant with you.”
Chrysanthemum ran her fingers across the braid’s zigzag pattern. Five beads of black, white, yellow, red, and green sat in the middle, each encircled by a thread.
“I wanted to give it to you earlier, but I didn’t know how. Didn’t want to speak of a bad thing in case it would taint the good.”
“A bad thing?” Chrysanthemum thought. “How can we interpret good and bad?” Her husband’s words rang out through her.
“Before having you, I also lost a pregnancy. During my early pregnancy, I had secretly gone to console my friend after her mother’s funeral. My mother told me not to go because it would bring negative energy to me and my baby. But I did not want my friend to be alone.”
Her mother’s eyes were wide and full and glistening, tears on the verge of rolling. She had never mentioned her miscarriage and generally didn’t like talking about death. Not used to her mom’s vulnerability, Chrysanthemum didn’t know if she should look at her, if it would be too direct. She settled on a spot on the carpet where a tuft of beige threads sprouted. She thought about the weight and loneliness her mother must have carried. They both carried it.
“That’s not your fault.”
Chrysanthemum’s words lingered between them.
“No one has ever said that to me before,” her mother said. “Sometimes it’s easier to find an explanation. I did everything I was told when I was carrying you. So I wanted it to work for you, too. But I ended up adding more stress.”
“Sometimes it is easier to find an explanation,” Chrysanthemum repeated.
“The monk who braided this told me to let my shoulders drop and rest,” her mom said. “You don’t have to carry my words, but maybe you can carry this instead.” “Rest” was bright, spring lavender tea blended with mint. The very thing she had been craving.
Chrysanthemum knew she might never forgive her mother for her words on love and selfishness. She would constantly need to untrain the thought when it arose. However, she realized that the streams of superstitions and advice passed on to her, and the pressure they created within her, had started long before her, and long before her mother.
She slipped the bracelet on her left wrist and lifted her wrist up to her mother. Her mother pulled on the two strings in opposite directions until the intertwined threads hugged tight against her skin. What was once her mother’s signal to rest had become hers.
At 37 weeks pregnant, Chrysanthemum thought, “I’m going to have a baby.” Her belief was complete and unrestrained. From the nursery, Chrysanthemum could hear her mother reciting mantras at the living room shrine and pictured her kneeling in front of a white-robed Guan Yin.
Since the incident, her mother never asked her to kneel at the altar again. She continued to cook for Chrysanthemum, pointing out the benefits of each ingredient. She’d drape a blanket near her when there was barely a breeze. But her mother bit her tongue and left the room whenever Chrysanthemum drank something cold. As a result, her swelling and cramping was not as extreme and felt more controllable.
Chrysanthemum pushed herself out of the chair and made her way to the altar. Incense filled the room, the plates overflowed with fruits and sweets, images and names of deceased family lined the table. She placed a pillow on the ground next to her mother and slowly dropped to her knees.
Her mother stopped her chanting and tried to raise Chrysanthemum up. “You should be resting, not kneeling.”
“I have some things to request. Can I have some joss sticks?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I want to.”
Her mother lit a few and gently fanned them until the flames disappeared and glowing embers took their place. Smoke wafted out from the tips, sending messages upward and outward. She handed the sticks to Chrysanthemum.
Chrysanthemum also wanted to send a message to the dead living on the altar and beyond. Both she and her mother raised their hands and incense sticks to their foreheads, then slightly curled their heads toward their bellies, two connected bodies bowing toward their own selves and in reverence of those before them.
Let Ma be at peace with herself, she thought. Let my child be her own self. And let me grieve my body.
She dug the sticks into the urn, standing them in the ashes of her mother’s prayers.