By Elaine Chiew
Sophie and Sabrina arrived before noon, standing in our dim hallway with the marbled water fountain trickling and the wind chimes tinkling, a battered suitcase resting between them like a pet dog. These names I had chosen : Sabrina the older, Sophie the younger.
Sophie shuffled her feet. Sabrina looked around with wide eyes. I imagined her taking in the antique cuckoo clock, the bric-a-brac clogging the fireplace mantel, the somber oil portraits of ancestors—lines of history.
I signed papers. I nodded at all the right places. With an inchoate fear clogging my throat, I began humming. The Chinese officer—I know him now as Mr. Lan—pushed his glasses back on his nose, filmed with sweat. He was talking, but his words appeared to float in the space between us, words like “routine,” “they speak no English,” “simple gestures,” “go easy.” He seemed disturbed by my humming. Suddenly, he cracked into a smile. “I’m a little teapot!” He shouted. I darted a glance down the hallway; Sophie was startled, almost skipping backward. Sabrina hugged herself, looking like she needed to pee.
“I know what you’re humming now.” Mr. Lan was triumphant. He shook my hand and ruffled the girls’ hair when he walked out. They shifted their eyes at him, in unison, and my heart melted like puddled ice-cream. That breath I had been holding released itself, a last puff of fear. It’s all right. It’s done, final.
“I’ll be back next week!” Mr. Lan sang from the doorway. I hated him then.
We were alone now, my girls and I. How quickly, how naturally that term slipped into my mind, like riverine slush. Twin haircuts, dimples in Sophie, determined chin on Sabrina. I hoped the names would stick.
“Something to eat?” I mouthed. Was I afraid of my own language, that it would sound foreign and grating to their ears, fill them with anxiety?
Sophie blinked. Sabrina opened her mouth wide, a gulping fish smile, showing jagged front teeth and missing ones.
I cupped one hand, mimicked a ladle with the other, and brought it to my mouth.
They understood. They nodded.
“Come,” I beckoned them to the kitchen. Sophie sat staring at all the appliances on the kitchen counter. Sabrina yawped and quickly brought a hand to her mouth.
Four and three, their mother barely out of her teens and in and out of alcohol rehab. The officials came and took the girls away, found them in soiled undergarments, unwashed, scrounging for scraps of rancid rice from the neighbors’ rubbish bins. This much I knew. Different fathers, one of them a petty thief. Those were the official facts on record. Daughters now of mine. Also an official fact on record.
I set rice in porcelain bowls in front of them. The amah brought in stir-fried beef in black bean sauce, roast duck, and soya sauce asparagus. The girls’ eyes became luminous and they watched the amah set the food before them with frightening intensity, as if to devour every gesture. Then their eyes sought mine, distrustful, seeking permission. I nodded.
They fell to. The noises they made while eating. I flinched, and my heart thumped and hurt. Like stepping on shards of glass. I couldn’t hold back, I cried silently, and went back to humming. Every darned nursery rhyme I knew.
They ate and ate. Their bellies had distended with the weight of all they ate, still they asked for more. With mouths full of gnawing hunger, they pointed at the rice cooker, that and the wok our only Chinese appliances. The amah gibbered in Cantonese at them. They answered with mouths full, pebbly grains of rice spraying the kitchen table. One grain landed in the stir-fried beef. Sophie gasped, looked at me. I smiled, extending my hand across the table. She shook her head, retracted like a turtle into its shell, but her mouth kept masticating.
“What did you ask them?” I was possessive of every interaction. The amah smiled, “This little one, she like rabbit soup, she say. Same as you husband—rabbit all the time.”
“Where would they get rabbit soup?”
“Actually, it probably dog, but I no say. Let her think rabbit. Better.” The amah disappeared.
“You like rabbit?” I asked Sophie. She blinked rapidly. My hands went under my chin like paws and I tilted my head up and down. “Boing boing?”
This made them both laugh—a cackle from Sophie, a screech from Sabrina. I swiped at my tears, and pointed down at the mountains of white rice heaped on the porcelain bowl. “Rice,” I said.
Sophie mimicked, “Lice.”
Sabrina swallowed. “Rice?” She was more tentative.
I nodded exuberantly. They smiled. I had never seen smiles like these, jagged, blackened teeth, blisters on their lips, but twin outbursts of the joy and delight of discovery.
“Your name is Sophie.” Enunciating carefully. “And your name is Sabrina.”
I paused. The cuckoo clock chimed twelve. Amidst the tolling, I mustered my courage and patted my chest. “I am Mama,” I said it with authority and held my breath. This was what one did in murky depths.
Sophie went still. Sabrina stared at me, and her eyes filled with defiance and warning.
The cuckoo burst out on its perch. “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” it trilled. Sophie snapped her head round. Sabrina swiveled in her chair. They stared mesmerized at the bird opening its beak, the sweet-pitched sound exploding like popped starbursts, and they fell out of their chair laughing. Their unrestrained mirth brought the amah back. I joined in.
“Cuckoo, cuckoo,” I mimicked after the retreating bird, eliciting fresh outbursts from the girls. Rice scattered everywhere, the amah wrung her hands, and I curled on the floor with my girls. We all held our stomachs in because it ached to laugh.
Elaine Chiew lives in London, England. She was a finalist for the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers, Fall 2005. Cuckoo is her first published story.
Photo "Holding Hands" courtesy of Marinka Van Holten, Wezep, Netherlands.
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