Gifts from a Newlywed Husband to His Wife
Qing was in the apartment's tiny kitchen, checking the fish crisping in her oven, when a flash of green in the corner of her eye made her look up. She didn't see anything unusual through the narrow doorway, but when she walked out into the living room, she couldn't miss the colorful bird perched on her windowsill. Most of its body was a soft aquamarine, but its wingtips were rust-red, and a black stripe covered part of its face like a bandit's mask. The bird peered at her, ruffled its feathers, and flew off.
Then she saw the watch lying on the sill where the bird had been. The setting sun glinted off its face and the gold clasp that had once held it on someone's wrist. It was still running, the hands pointing to old-fashioned Roman numerals that seemed out of place on the otherwise sleek, modern device.
It must be a coincidence, Qing thought, someone else with the same model. Tuan's parents were considered well-off in their hometown, but the watch had been a major expense even for them. In a city like San Diego, such a purchase wouldn't be quite as rare.
Qing picked the watch up with a vague idea of turning it in to the university's Lost and Found. Under her fingers, the back was grooved. She could tell that the marks were a pattern, not the random scratches of wear or carelessness. Turning it over, she saw that there was an inscription on the back. A chill ran through her upon realizing it was in Mandarin.
'To our son. We are so proud.'
Qing took one step back, then another. It can't be, it can't be, she repeated, like a mantra. Her legs wobbled, and a dark haze crept in at the edges of her vision. The backs of her thighs hit the couch, and she sat down with a thump just before her sight faded altogether.
"Hello." The voice was quiet, the speaker slim and fine-boned. He wore a blue button-down shirt and khakis. "My name is Tuan."
"I'm Qing. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Tuan sat down at her table while both sets of parents kept watch from across the cafe. They ordered tea and made awkward conversation for a few minutes.
Casting about for something to say during a lull, Qing ventured, "That's a beautiful watch."
Tuan smiled. "It was a gift from my parents when I got accepted to UCLA. I'll be the first person in my family to go to college in America."
Qing broke into a grin that matched Tuan's. "Me too!"
Qing sighed. The mystery of Tuan's watch was just as impenetrable as it had been a week ago, and as much as she wanted to keep pondering until she reached some kind of reasonable explanation, exams waited for no one. She hauled her Organic Chemistry notebook out of her backpack and began to read.
A scratching sound roused her attention from the enigma of hydrogen bonds. She remembered asking Caroline to please not leave food out on the kitchen counter overnight. So help me, if she's attracted mice...
An annoyed huff blew stray strands of hair out of her face, and the motion was mirrored by something just outside the window. The bird was back. Qing jumped up from her chair. The loose feather it had just dislodged with a vigorous shake of its head fell to the windowsill.
Qing held her breath. Don't fly away, don't fly away. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and held it up. The trembling of her hands made it hard to hold it steady, but after a few tries she succeeded in getting a decent picture.
As if it had been waiting for her to finish, the bird dipped its head and flew off. Qing hurried to the window, where she caught a glimpse of silver next to the fallen feather. The slim rectangle emblazoned with a shooting star was instantly recognizable.
Qing hurried into the restaurant, hoping against hope that Tuan would still be there. First her baby nephew had flung a dish of applesauce off the table so that it splattered all over her dress. She had changed into a new dress, which didn't match at all with the shoes she had been planning to wear, and discovered that the heel on one of the shoes that did match was broken. She had run over to her friend Mei's house and borrowed a suitable pair of shoes...only to find that because of all this, she had missed the bus. By the time she finally got to the restaurant, she was almost half an hour late.
Breathless, hair askew, she skidded to a stop in the middle of the reception area. There were a few other couples, a family, and a couple of lone people waiting to be seated, but no sign of Tuan. Maybe he's already taken a seat? Qing approached the hostess and asked for him.
"No, I'm sorry, he left a few minutes ago. We only hold reservations for twenty minutes, you know."
Qing trudged back out onto the sidewalk. She and Tuan had both been looking forward to their date all week, especially since the only way they'd gotten a reservation in the first place was through Tuan's cousin, who knew the owner. Would he be angry that she'd stood him up, or just disappointed?
She leaned against the wall of the restaurant and closed her eyes, willing herself not to cry. Soft footsteps approached, but she ignored them. Let the customers stare all they wanted.
Her eyes shot open at the familiar voice. Tuan was standing there in his best suit, the silver tie pin with the shooting star on it holding a maroon tie in place.
"So, uh, the restaurant canceled our reservation."
"I know! I'm so sorry! It was Huawei; he didn't want to eat, so he threw his bowl and it got all over me and--"
"It's okay," Tuan laughed, "I'm just glad you're not sick or anything! I was wondering what had happened. I figured I'd wait for you a little longer, so I got a table at the place across the street." He pointed to the cafe with its outdoor tables under green canvas umbrellas. It wasn't nearly as fancy as where they'd been planning to eat, but the enticing smell of fried food drifted from it, and the other patrons were smiling and laughing.
"That's great!" Qing said, taking Tuan's hand as they sprinted across the road.
Qing scrolled through the list of search results. There were more forums dedicated to birdwatching than she had expected. She clicked on the one at the top of the list and was gratified to see a thread titled, 'What's this bird?'
'Seen a bird you can't identify? Post pics here and we'll try to help!' the opening post offered.
Qing uploaded her picture and added a brief message: 'Newbie here. I'm actually not really into birdwatching, but I've seen this guy outside my window twice now, and I have to know what it is!'
The dining hall was quiet the next morning, so it was easy to notice Jared watching her from the table where he sat with a few other members of the lacrosse team. He was in her Organic Chemistry class, and she often caught him glancing at her and then looking away when she met his eyes.
Jared's teammates inclined their heads in her direction and made shooing gestures at him. Finally he got up, downed the rest of his orange juice as if he wished it were something stronger, and made his way over to her. "Hey."
"So, how's your studying going? For the chem test?"
Qing shrugged. "Not too bad."
"I was thinking, if you need a break tonight, there's a couple new movies showing that look good. We could go see one if you want."
"That's really nice of you," Qing said, "but, well..." She tilted her left hand to show off the rings.
"Oh!" Jared looked like he wanted to disappear but couldn't think of a way to excuse himself. "So, um, does he go here too?"
"No, he's back home."
Which was true. That was where Tuan was buried.
"Mmm." Qing closed her eyes as the ice cream melted on her tongue. The sweet scent of the vanilla beans wafted up and floated into her nose, intensifying the taste.
Her mother smiled. "You have always loved that, ever since you were a little girl."
"There's a place near campus that has ice cream like this, but eating it always just made me feel homesick."
Qing's mother ruffled her hair. "It's good to have you home. Your father and I missed you, this past year."
"I'm glad to be home too. I just wish Tuan were here."
"I know you miss him, sweetheart, but this internship will be a good opportunity for him."
The sound of a rhythmic slapping against the pavement made Qing look up from her treat. Mei was barreling toward them.
"Qing, Qing!" The young woman's cheeks were flushed and streaked with tears.
Mei threw her arms around Qing, crushing the ice cream cone between their bodies. It smeared across Mei's favorite dress, but she didn't pay any attention. "It's Tuan!" she wailed. "There was an accident, a car accident. Qing, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!"
Qing opened her email client and saw that someone had responded to her post on the birdwatching forum. A senior member named Plover_Lover had written, 'I think that's an Indochinese green magpie. Hope it didn't steal any of your stuff, LOL.'
That would have made perfect sense if she were at home. But here? Groping for a rational explanation, Qing checked the San Diego Zoo's website, but they hadn't posted any notices about escaped birds. She looked for local news stories about people releasing exotic pets they couldn't take care of anymore, but there was nothing there either.
Deciding to take a different tack, Qing looked up information on magpies in general. Along with crows and ravens, they were part of a family called corvids that were known for their high intelligence. They had a tendency to hoard shiny objects, and--
Qing sat back in her chair, the breath whooshing out of her.
According to some legends, corvids could freely cross between the worlds of the living and the dead.
"I still want to marry him."
Qing's mother looked up from where she was preparing food to bring to the funeral. "What?"
"I want to go through with marrying Tuan. I want a minghun."
"A ghost marriage? But..." The older woman looked down at her cutting board. "Qing, you may not believe this now, but you will fall in love again. Your feelings for Tuan will never go away entirely, but you may find the same feelings for someone else." She turned and gazed out the window for a few moments before adding, "A marriage is about more than just how you fill out your tax forms. If you fall in love with someone else in a few years, you could legally marry them. But your heart, your soul, will never be theirs. If you go through with a minghun, you will be giving those things to Tuan."
She started chopping vegetables again, the sound of the knife tapping against the cutting board punctuating her words. "Your father and Tuan's have been good friends since they were young. When you and Tuan were born, they agreed that they would try to arrange a match between you. They were intending for you to grow up together, to be close friends, so that by the time you were old enough to be bethrothed, it would just seem natural. Then Tuan's family moved away, so that didn't happen. You seemed to get along well when you finally did meet, and this kind of arrangement is how everyone did things back in the old days anyway. It's how your father and I became engaged, and Tuan's parents too. But I wondered whether the two of you would really be happy marrying someone you'd only known for a year."
She set down the knife, stepped forward, and placed her hands on Qing's cheeks. "Don't feel like you have to do this to please me, or your father, or Tuan's parents. What happened to Tuan was a tragedy, but it may..." She took a deep breath. "It may have given you a chance to plan your own future that the young people of my generation didn't have."
Qing tried to answer, but the lump in her throat seemed to absorb her breath before it could form words. Her mother had seen Tuan pick her up at their house for dates and the way she watched him walk down the sidewalk when he dropped her off afterward, but that had only been for a summer. She hadn't seen Qing leap up from her bed in the dorm room to grab the phone because it might be Tuan calling, or listened to them plan their weekends around being able to meet up with each other. After a few moments, she managed to croak, "You don't need to worry about whether we would have been happy together--we would! And there isn't anyone I'd rather marry than Tuan."
Qing was resplendent in her red cheongsam, with her hair done up in a chignon and pearl earrings dangling from her ears. Mei stood beside her, fidgeting with the peonies she carried.
Both sets of parents had worked together to make the effigy that stood in for the absent groom. Sturdy bamboo rods formed its limbs, and palm fronds had been woven together in a rough sphere for its head. Tuan's ancestor tablet was nestled inside the chest cavity, ensuring that his spirit was truly present. Qing accepted each gift with a gracious bow, and at the end of the banquet, burned those that were made of paper so that Tuan could enjoy them in the afterlife.
There were tears in her eyes, and she could not have said whether they were from sorrow or joy.
Tap tap, tap tap.
Qing had been waiting for this. She inched her hand toward the carved wooden box on her desk, afraid that any sudden movement would scare the bird away.
Inside the box, the pearl earrings rested on a velvet lining. Qing lifted them out, the delicate, eggshell-colored spheres swaying on thin gold chains. She crossed the room on the balls of her feet and slid the window open.
The bird was still there, preening its feathers with a supreme lack of concern. Qing offered the earrings on the palm of her hand. The bird extended its beak and lifted them like a connoisseur using chopsticks to lift a piece of sushi. It hopped to the edge of the windowsill, crouched down, and launched itself into the air.
The bird's iridescent feathers shone in the sun, and the pearls swung back and forth beneath it like pendulums. Qing watched it shrink as it flew over the rooftops, becoming a green blob, then a green dot, then disappearing entirely. She sat down at her desk, pulled a piece of stationery toward her, and began to write in preparation for the bird's return.