While I am tweezing the first of three cactus needles stung into my right shoulder, my teeth furiously biting into a small rolled-up towel I’ve put in my mouth, I feel more certain than ever that Ma’s expensively exotic plant has to go. Despite a strong feeling of déjà vu, I don’t know how I was stung this time. My plan was to first move the bronze-coloured vase onto the bath towel and then pull the towel so that the vase could easily slide from the windows in the living room to the front door without scratching the wooden floor, and from there down the cargo elevator to the dumpster area.
I have really tried to like this spikey, stout succulent plant—the height of Ma. But because of its unfortunate shape, every time I look at it, I see a crime suspect with a crude, prickly face, a big belly, and excessive body hair, his arms in the air as if surrendering to the police.
In spite of my unfavourable impression, for ten years I have put up with the cactus’s existence in this apartment—which I alone pay for. It (the cactus, not the apartment) was presented to Ma as a gift by my baby brother and his botanist wife, Jenny, at their farewell dinner. It would’ve been nice of Ma to ask for her flatmate’s (my) opinion first, but she did not, and right away allocated the prime spot beside our living room windows to the plant.
Has she forgotten about Feng Shui? Placing a cactus at home is believed to bring disaster-level bad fortune, probably because of the sharp weaponry pointing in all directions; it makes as much sense as installing a broken mirror above a bed’s headboard. Judging from Ma’s readiness to overlook such a blatant faux pas, I could see that she genuinely admired Jenny—in part because she was beautiful, and in larger part because she was smart enough to land a new teaching post at a university in the States.
That night of the farewell dinner, after the sweet couple had gone home, I was fully engrossed in the last episode of a Korean drama series when I saw from the corner of my eye Ma sitting by the cactus, wiping away tears with her handkerchief. I could have gone over to ask Are you okay? during the commercial, but my empathy was stifled by the pungent lavender mothball scent of her pyjamas and handkerchief, which I could smell from the couch.
This morning, I need to remove the plant before Ma returns from her swim and before I head out to work. If I hurry, I should have enough time because she’s also going to have breakfast with her women friends after her swim. Her friends are mostly widows like her, or divorced women. I heard from Ma that one of those women has a husband but doesn’t sleep with him anymore because she found out many years ago that he spent a big chunk of his retirement savings to rescue his sister’s dying business. Forgiveness is the hardest homework for women, because they have the most bitter and poisonous of all hearts, Ma explained.
I know she is going to ring me soon, as she always does, to wake me for work. I duck behind the blinds and take a quick peek out our second-floor window to our apartment’s outdoor pool below. I somehow can’t find her, but I know she’s there. She will soon notice her human-sized cactus has disappeared. But even if she does, I have ample justification for removing her plant: its unstoppable growth and its needles—as poisonous as women’s hearts. She always whines to her menopausal friends about something that I do or don’t do. So fussy. So typical of single women past their golden windows for marriage, I have more than once heard her rowdy complaints to her friends about me drift up from the pool to my window. So cactus or no cactus, it won’t make much of a difference.
I wince and take another look at my reddened shoulder, which has suffered a dozen punctures besides the three needles that stayed in my skin. I search our flat for the liquid bandage spray she brought home from her trip to Shenzhen with her morning swim friends. I didn’t have any wounds I was aware of when she gave it to me as a souvenir.
Ma, it’s made in the People’s Republic of China, I said.
Of course! I bought it in the Mainland, she said.
That’s precisely why I won’t use it. Clothes and light bulbs are okay, but this is medical supply, I said.
Up to you, she said so casually, as if it really was no matter to her—yet there was an ominous undertone of certainty that perhaps I alone in the world, her only daughter, could sense that she just knew I would ask her for it in the future.
As soon as I recall her covert prediction, I stop my search for the liquid bandage to prove her wrong. I go to the freezer for a bag of green peas.
When I can’t find the green peas, I fetch a small bag of ice cubes instead. I press it onto my inflamed shoulder. The bag gets stuck to the grip of my dry hand—and yet how deeply gratifying the contact feels to my battered shoulder! Feeling an insatiable craving for the sharp coolness, I don’t put the ice back into the fridge until my hand starts dripping.
When I return to the living room, it is disheartening to see the oversized cactus still standing defiantly in its entitled territory by the window, the bath towel crinkled up on the floor against the vase.
The main problem is our wooden floor. If it were sturdy tile I would have just pushed the vase across the room without worrying about scratches. But when we were renovating the new flat, Ma insisted that I get wooden floors even though they were three times more expensive.
Daughter, get wooden floor. Tile floor will freeze your feet in the winter. Just look at your sorry toes now. They’re more wrinkled than mine, and purplish like a corpse’s! I make red date ginger tea for you and you don’t drink it. You see why your blood doesn’t flow? All my friends say my daughter’s face look pale, she said, her flabby arms and belly flopping against my bedroom doorway in our old apartment. She and her friends must have spent more time chatting in the pool than in the dim-sum restaurant. I could smell her from my desk. Mothballs mixed with chlorine.
Okay. Wooden floor. Can we stop using mothballs in our new home though?
I squat to flatten the bath towel. I plan to lift one side of the vase a little with my forearm, so that I can slip the towel into the gap underneath. When I embrace the vase again, I throw my head back to keep a safe distance from the cactus.
Sunlight pours into the living room. I stare hard at the clusters of spines on the cactus and everything else in the background blurs. The yellow, translucent bristles remind me of Mao’s fur. It was a long time ago when I was a kid. I brought home a stray kitten I found in the park. I gave it to Ma as a Mother’s Day gift. I assumed she would fall in love with it the way I had because she liked Hello Kitty, too. So I was disappointed when she dismissed Mao based on her assessment of general feline personalities: clean and clever, but selfish and jealous. Surprisingly, though, when I asked her for my brother’s baby formula tin can — which I thought would make a perfect playpen for Mao—Ma rinsed a used one for me. I liked to put Mao by the window so that he could bask in the sun. I wondered if he would get tanned and freckled. On a rare rainy day in the winter, when I got home from school, I found the tin can filled with water and Mao sleeping at the bottom of it. His wet fur looked like bristles after I dried him off with my brother’s baby-blue burp cloth – the one with the little hearts print.
Why didn’t you tell me Mao would drown in the milk powder can? I asked Ma.
I didn’t know you would put it on the windowsill, she said, burping my brother, whose head leaned docilely against her chest. He was wearing cute socks Ma had knitted. Her eyes faintly smiled at him when he yawned.
You knew it.
My eyes fixated on the spines, I huff with exertion as I try to lift the vase. Then almost immediately, my lower back starts straining and my armpits start sweating. I suddenly realize if I stand up at this moment, my upper body will naturally lean forward and my forearms or my shoulders will easily be stung again. I sit back on my bum and pivot myself on the wooden floor with my wrists. It is in this awkward posture that a liberating thought flashes across my mind: the wooden floor is Ma’s. So I stop worrying about scratching it.
I stand to wrap the cactus with the bath towel. Its spines catch onto the material as if the cactus is being sealed with cling wrap. Then I squat and hug the vase again. I feel my arm muscles being squished by the brim of the vase. Each time I lift the vase, I slightly twist my torso so as to drag the vase forward bit by bit as though the vase is an overweight penguin waddling on ice, clumsily but purposefully. My heart, with cactus needles jutting out and pulsing, skips a few beats of little triumphs when the giant vase squeaks and claws the wooden floor.
When my back and arms are burning, I stop to drink some cold water. I open the freezer for the ice cubes and in my groggy state of mind see my trembling hands pouring the punitive ice cubes over the soil around the cactus.
Then my cell phone rings. It’s not Ma. It’s my brother, calling from California. He rarely calls me. Even for Ma, two months can pass by without a call from him.
Morning, sis, he says.
What’s up? So surprised to get your call! What time is it over there?
We’re still in Hong Kong. Not leaving till next Wednesday…are you okay?
I’m okay. Thanks for asking. Just lacking sleep.
I understand. Same here. Hey, Jenny and I have discussed this: we aren’t sure how you feel about the cactus…since Ma is no longer with us, we can arrange for someone to pick it up from your place. We know a reliable shipping company. They won’t scratch your wooden floor. What do you think?
What do I think? What do I think? I sit on the floor next to the mummified plant. From the bronze-coloured paintwork on the giant ceramic vase, the fish-view reflection of my skeptical face looks comical and evasive. I observe how the size and shape of my eyes, nose, teeth, and chin become stretched, shrunk, crooked, or sagged as my head mechanically nods. Then I see wet green peas soaking in the black soil in the vase.
I think I need to go relieve myself, I say, and hang up.
Back in bed, I find comfort as my restless fingers rub the thinning handkerchief I always keep by my pillow. I sniff it, reassured by its lavender mothball scent. I see my young mother standing by the doorway of my room in our old apartment, her fingers wrapped around my Hello Kitty mug. I am in a thick knitted cardigan over my pyjamas. Earlier, I sat at my desk for hours, doing homework, and now, my back feels rigid and my fingers and toes are numb. Sprawled in the margins of my textbook are my doodling of a snowman, snowflakes and a kitten wearing knitted shoes.
Drink some warm red date ginger tea. Your feet must be cold, Ma says.
Hong Kong is too warm in winter, I wish it would snow, I say, sipping the fragrant tea, savouring it until the mug is emptied.
Yuetting’s stories have appeared in Quiddity (NPR Illinois), Wasafiri, and Brain, Child. She has won the Second Prize in Hong Kong’s “Top Story 2017” competition, and her story, “Fridays on Tin Hau Temple Road” has been recognized as an honorable mention in the 2017 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition.