Adult first runner-up: Prank, by Cindy Lam
The only music I ever listen to these years is Anita Mui’s songs. I sometimes play her “Written in Water” album on repeat after my students have left and I am alone in my small art-jamming studio. Then I don’t have to hear Fat Keung fart in his make-shift office next door.
Fortunately, Yau-yau was born on the other end of the musical intelligence spectrum. She plays the piano by ear, and she plays it 40 hours a week. Imagine fish meets water.
The piano will be your best friend forever, I like to tell her these days.
After the recital ended, I was going to bring her to an outside cafeteria for lunch. I planned to take the Salisbury Road exit so she would not see the exhibition in the lobby of the Cultural Center. What’s there for her to see anyway?
“Mama, there’s an exhibition over there,” she said, pointing in the general direction of the crowd browsing the clusters of black-and-white photo panels. Her gifted ears must have caught the other children’s chatter.
“They have this type of stuff there all the time,” I said. “Let’s go eat.” I zipped open her daisy-shaped backpack to get her eyeglass case. A new addition to her backpack. The doctor said she needed her anti-blue ray, anti-UV eyeglasses whenever she looked at monitors or spent time outdoors. He had previously uttered a bunch of other things when I went without Yau-yau, after her electroretinography test results had returned.
“How much does she have left?” I asked.
“Around thirty percent.”
“So she won’t become totally blind if she wears her glasses?” I asked.
“Her glasses will only prevent further damage from the sun or from monitors, but how the disease will unfold varies among patients.” Then he went on to explain more about rod cone dystrophy. “There are no effective cures, but there are visual aids that help maximize vision —”
“What has caused it?” I interrupted. At that moment, I felt that if I could nail down the cause, I might be able to save my daughter’s eyes.
“It’s quite likely her genes,” he replied.
“Her genes? She was born with perfect vision. Things only started to go downhill this summer,” I said.
“She’ll need genetic tests to find out,” he said.
I haven’t been in touch with her father since she was two (she’s now six), but I am certain I am the one who has passed it to her. I have what they call, “lazy eyes”— something I used to my advantage when I was in my teens and my mother complained about my not reading the Bible.
“But I want to look at the pictures,” Yau-yau said.
She wants to look at the pictures.
“Just five minutes. I’m hungry,” I said.
“You might like those pictures,” she said, her dainty dimples appearing. “You always do.”
“A tapestry of Hong Kong’s working-class memories from the 1950s and 60s,” I mumbled the line printed on the introductory panel before we went on to browse the grainy black-and-white photos. Yau-yau folded her hands at her back beneath her backpack. I looked at her large yellow peony hairpin; I have bought her a few similar ones. She likes to draw and paint them in her sketchbook.
Now she was gawking at a photo of market stalls with canopies that looked about to fall, and then one of a dark alley haphazardly festooned with laundry. Frankly, I didn’t care about old Hong Kong’s slums; I was dying to ask my daughter: What can you see?
Fat Keung isn’t someone I would normally seek advice from. He’s usually reticent, and even when he speaks, his opinions are either uninspiring or biased — for example, whenever I hinted at Yau-yau’s musical genius, he would mention that his four-year-old nephew could play piano by ear as well.
I have a pathetic habit of talking to him about Yau- yau after doing it with him. So that day, while I was pulling my Indian pants back on, he poked my calf with his toe, his bare mass still lounging on his Salvation Army thrift store couch, and said, “What’s the point of constantly asking her, ‘What can you see?’? She doesn’t need more eye exams to tell her what she cannot see.”
Since I couldn’t talk about the photos with Yau-yau without asking about her vision, I decided to appreciate those slices of historical specimens myself. The exhibition had drawn flocks of tourists, so we had to weave through the panels in random order.
We didn’t say a word to each other as we perused photos of tong-laus with lots of handwritten Chinese billboards hanging from their exteriors, and photos of the hazy harbour with junks and sampans sailing past, looking like origami boats shrouded in fog.
I must have stopped in front of the photo with the boats longer than the others because Yau-yau looked up at me and asked, “Mama, is this one your favorite?”
Before the summer, Yau-yau had always seen the world all right. Whenever I told her it was rude to look at people from the corner of her eyes, she responded by turning to me and gazing directly into mine. She would flaunt her dimpled smile and full set of milk teeth, and I would tickle her armpits and ribs until she drooled on my arms. Teachers liked to display her artwork around the school and gave her extra stickers and fancy erasers to reward her for her nice paintings.
The first sign that her vision was deteriorating was when her crayons began brazenly crossing the outlines on her coloring paper. We were having dinner with Fat Keung and I secretly suspected she colored that way because she didn’t like having him around.
One night last summer, when I lay down in my bed, I found an envelope on my pillowcase. It was a birthday card Yau-yau had made for me. The cover had two large carnivorous looking daisies on it. Inside it read: Mama, Happy Birthday!
Each of the jagged Chinese characters was as large as seven water bottle caps put together. I stood the card on my bedside table and stared at it the whole night. The next morning, Fat Keung found a “popular and affordable” eye doctor using a mobile phone app. I called the clinic and was told the next available time slot was three months away. Three months? I felt the walls in my studio crumbling in on me. I started crying. “Imagine you have a child losing his eyesight…” The receptionist relented and got us in the next day.
From then on, Yau-yau practiced the piano four hours a day, Monday to Friday, and ten hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes she complained that she was tired or couldn’t see the notes on her scores. I made enlarged photocopies and spent hours organizing the sheets for her. I sat next to her piano bench to make sure she kept playing.
“Why don’t you let her rest?” Fat Keung has asked me time and again, as if he didn’t understand my previous answers.
“One day the world she knows will disappear; all she’ll see will be darkness. I want her to achieve true mastery of the piano while she can still see so that it will be her company when she cannot.”
She said the large scores were hard to follow. “You only have to memorize the piece, then you won’t need to read the scores again,” I coaxed.
Once she got so frustrated she faced the wall next to her piano. She didn’t cry, but she asked me what was wrong with her eyes.
“It’s only temporary,” I said.
“When will my eyes recover?” She demanded as if I had borrowed them from her.
“A few months.” “How many months?”
“Perhaps three to five.”
“So you don’t know,” she said. Then she stood in the same spot facing the wall for three hours.
True — I don’t know how much longer she has, so I’ve decided I won’t allow anymore tantrums. One day I caught her drawing daisies on the back of her piano score instead of practicing. Without thinking, I fetched her sketchbook and shredded all her paintings along with the empty pages in the book.
Then I snipped open a few tubes of her acrylic paints and emptied them down the drain. She pulled at my arms as I did this, weakly because she was sobbing so hard.
In the end, she retreated to the same spot beside her piano and stood there facing the wall, unwilling to speak. I lay still in my bed thinking about the trauma I must have brought her. Feeling devastated, I closed my eyes and tried to empty my mind. When I heard her playing piano in the living room, I opened my eyes to find night had fallen.
“Mama, I’m hungry,” she said when she saw me get up. I made dinner and we ate together. “I like this cha-siu,” she said. That was her way of forgiving me, I assumed. I couldn’t forgive myself, yet I couldn’t bear the thought of her giving up her only friend either.
The next day while I was looking for my other sock under Fat Keung’s Salvation Army couch, I said. “He’s playing a prank on us.”
“God. He gave her a talent for painting, but he is making her blind.”
After Yau-yau left for school that morning, I found her painting of cherry blossoms on a paper napkin on the kitchen counter. She had used my cup of milk tea to weigh it down. She must also have dipped her fingers into the tea to create the different shades of brown to make the cherry blossom petals.
“I don’t have a favorite,” I told her when we were leaving the Cultural Centre. “Do you have one?”
“My favorite is that photo with a woman walking her dog.” She pointed to the photo on our left. It gave me chills.
“There isn’t any dog in that picture. There’s only an old woman walking alone with her cane in an alley. She’s holding a large bag in one hand, though,” I said. I didn’t mention her hunched back or her oversized bag. Nor did I mention the dark silhouettes of the canopies and of the empty laundry rods. Nor those cryptic pre-war French windows of the tong-laus. I couldn’t make out whether it was haze filling the air in the alleyway or daylight. What I saw in the photo was profound loneliness.
“No dog?” she asked.
After a while she added, “But there could be a dog in real life. The photographer might not have included it because he was trying to trick our eyes. Ten steps behind the granny in the photo is her dog along with two of her granny friends. All three granny rascals are scouting the alley looking for nice big flowers on people’s balconies that they can cut and take home. And this granny,” she said, tapping the photo, “is responsible for their plan!”
“They climb up to the balconies?”
“No. People see their canes and invite them in to rest their knees.” “And do the people let the dog in as well?”
“Why not? He never barks or bites anyone. These three grannies never go on a mission without him.”
We brought our sushi take-out to the promenade. We ate with our fingers and looked at the harbor. “Mama, I see a small wooden boat!” she called, pointing to the water. Soon I found myself humming the chorus of one of the songs I always played on repeat in my studio.
My heart is like a small wooden boat. I can’t see afar, but forward I flow…