By Naomii Seah
This year’s festival theme was Queerevolution; the stories submitted for the contest had to include the phrase “evolution”. Judges were Grace Shelley, editor of Overcomm, and writer Oscar Upperton. Seah was one of the winners for the Promising Young Writer category.
When Ma told me she didn’t believe in evolution, I almost choked on dinner.
What do you mean? I asked, chewing my rice and beef slowly, feeling my throat constricting. I leaned forward and coughed in slow motion, hand to mouth, trying to avoid blowing chunks across the table. It was the same round, chipped wooden table we’d had since I could remember, but she had set it specially, Ma had, with four dinner plates and the napkins folded nicely – the way Ba liked it – even though it was just the two of us as always and there was never any occasion. Ma chewed her mouthful in one cheek, swallowed, and took a sip of her broth. Today it was my favourite: carrot and turnip.
Ma looked down at the table, then dead into my eyes and said: I mean that it doesn’t make sense, and I don’t believe it. Ma didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask her to. My teeth worked side-to-side, up and down as I watched her from under half-shut lids. I unfocused and refocused my eyes, trying in vain to see Ma differently. I don’t know what I expected, just that my perception of Ma had been permanently altered, so perhaps that would be mirrored externally. Perhaps I’d notice a new mole, a wart, or a long, singular chin hair. I looked and looked, trying to see some sign on her face, head, neck or hands that would have given it away, if only I’d seen it sooner. But despite my best efforts, she was the same Ma as ever, grey hairs sprouting from her temples, crows feet starting to inch their way down her cheeks, full-lipped mouth – once pink and rosy, now a dull puce – pressed tight from years of dissatisfaction.
After this declaration I didn’t know what to say. I debated arguing the point, then decided against it. Ma didn’t take kindly to back-talk, and I wasn’t in the mood for a fight. There was a time when I would’ve started one just for the hell of it – for my principles, for my need to be right, or both. But recently the fight had gone out of my chest. It was easier that way. So we finished dinner in silence, sitting side-by-side as usual, chewing our food. When we were finished I cleared our plates and took them to the kitchen. As I washed the dishes I looked back at Ma, who hadn’t moved from her position at the table. She wore a deep crease between her brows, and she was staring at the space between her clasped hands.
I told Sunnie about it the next day. You can’t be serious, she said. I nodded. What did you say? Sunnie asked, peering at me from the corner of her eye, behind her sunglasses.
We were sitting on the beach, lounging back on our towels. It was a scorching summer’s day; the sort where the water was so blue it hurt to look at, and everything was day-glo bright. The pōhutakawa were in bloom, and the one we lay under had made a dusting of red carpet on the sand. I, for one, preferred to be in direct sun, but contrary to her name, Sunnie insisted on shade. It was the sort of thing that had won Ma’s approval, initially. I flipped around to lie on my stomach, resting my head on folded hands. I didn’t say anything, I said.
The first time Sunnie picked me up from our house, she emerged from her red Toyota Vitz in a huge straw hat and sunglasses, wearing a pretty floral skirt and a cotton lace blouse. Who’s that? Ma had asked, peeking out from behind the blinds. My friend Sunnie, I said bluntly. I was hurriedly shoving sunblock into my overstuffed tote bag. What else did I need? Keys, wallet, phone. Where had I put my sunglasses? Ma made toward the front door. I’ll get it Ma, I said, putting my hand out as if to stop her.
You’re embarrassed of me, Ma said, pouting. You never want me to meet your friends. That’s not true, I said, avoiding eye contact, rummaging in my bag. I wondered if I had enough time to grab my sunglasses. I’ll just be a second, I thought, darting off. But I wasn’t fast enough – by the time I came back Sunnie and Ma were having a conversation in the doorway.
I hung back as Sunnie greeted Ma in Cantonese, prompting an exclamation of delight from Ma. My Cantonese wasn’t good, but I caught bits and pieces. Sunnie was impressively fluent. I like your hat, said Ma. Thank you, it’s too hot, said Sunnie. Yes, yes, no wonder your skin is so nice, said Ma, not like Julie, her skin is so black like a coolie. But you’re so pretty, Ma added. Sunnie smiled a cold sort of smile, face impassive behind her dark sunglasses, and said no, not at all. I brushed past Ma in the doorway, mouthing sorry. Bye Ma, I said. See you later. Bye Julie, bye Sunnie, Ma called happily.
In the car, Sunnie huffed air through her nose, mouth twisted into a half-smile. Your Ma is just like mine, she said, a wistful look in her eye. As we backed down the drive I saw Ma standing by the door, watching us go, waving cheerfully.
Later, over dinner, Ma told me I should spend more time with people like Sunnie. Sunnie is a good girl, Ma asserted confidently, sprinkling fried shallots over her porridge. She can be a good influence on you, Ma said. Why don’t you speak Cantonese with her? Then came the usual assortment of questions. What did Sunnie’s parents do, where did she live, where was she from, no, what region was she from, did she have any siblings, where did she work, and did she have a boyfriend? I ate quickly, answering only occasionally.
That was over a year ago now, when Sunnie and I spent every weekend at the beach. We went mostly for my sake, because I loved the water, and Sunnie said she didn’t mind since she liked the view, despite her aversion to the sun. When the weather got cooler Sunnie and I stopped going to the beach and began perusing the bookstores in the city centre. I was a fan of poetry and fiction, the airy-fairy stuff, and Sunnie would read serious biographies. I brought her translated poems for her birthday in May, and she brought me Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
Sometimes we explored the pockets of nature tucked away in the city. There were small parks with pigeons cooing in the grass, man-made lakes crowded with geese and black swans, and more expansive pockets of bush, where pīwakawaka would trail us, black and white tails flashing in the undergrowth.
Other times Sunnie and I wouldn’t do much at all, especially when the rains picked up and created that grey, formless blanket that often descended on the city streets. For a while Sunnie rented a tiny apartment on the outskirts, with a roommate we never saw. So much the better: I’d lay on the floor reading Ocean Vuong and she would sing to herself, doing chores. Then Sunnie moved to the suburbs, and I would read on the grass while she worked from the deck, squinting over her laptop screen.
Why don’t you move in? Sunnie had asked once as we lay in bed on a lazy morning. You’re always here anyway, she teased, wrapping an arm around me. I can’t, I said, staring at her plaster ceiling, I can’t leave Ma. Sunnie smiled, eyes disappearing behind smooth, full cheeks. You don’t have to leave her, Sunnie said, she could move in with us, and we could take care of her. There was a beat as I looked into her eyes and her into mine, and then we collapsed into laughter, startling the sparrows outside her window.
Is she religious? Sunnie asked now, sitting up on her towel. Don’t think so, I said, propping my chin up on my hands, stirring the sand with a gnarled twig. How could she not believe in it? Said Sunnie, almost to herself, staring into the distance. It’s science, doesn’t she believe in science? Sunnie mused, resting her chin on her knees. I shrugged, scrunching my shoulders up to my ears. I wouldn’t have guessed that about her, said Sunnie, staring toward the water, where a golden lab was playing in the surf. She doesn’t look like someone who would think that, Sunnie said, stretching her legs over the sand. I flipped onto my back, extending my hands toward the canopy above, inadvertently sprinkling sand over my cheeks. What does a creationist look like, anyway? I asked. Mm, Sunnie said, staring down at her thighs. Besides, I said quietly, staring at the sky, Ma doesn’t believe in a lot of things that are real.
Later, Sunnie dropped me off on my street, a few houses away from mine. I waved her goodbye from the sidewalk, adjusting my heavy bags. You know I can drop you closer, she said, one hand on the steering wheel, leaning out the car window. I pulled my mouth into a smile. Don’t worry about it, I said, I can walk. As I trudged up the driveway, I saw the curtains flicker. A moment later, Ma was at the door, leaning on the frame. You should have come home earlier, she told me, her lips pressed thin. Dinner is getting cold.
That night, over steamed fish and rice, Ma said: you know, I’m going to die soon. I tutted, pulling a thin bone from between my teeth. You always say that, I said, ears burning, dreading what was coming next. It’s true, Ma insisted, reaching for some veggies. I’m going to die soon, and I wish you could find someone to take care of you before then, she said, scooping a hunk of fish onto my plate. I looked down, using my spoon to flake the pale flesh from its skin. Don’t be silly Ma, I said, I have you to take care of me, and lots of friends, too. Ma furrowed her brow, chewing pensively, and said: Julie, you know what I mean.
Do you remember my friend, Cherry? Ma asked a moment later, taking a sip of her broth. Today it was Ba’s favourite: pork, corn and dates. I nodded. She told me that god would take care of you when I’m gone, Ma said, and I asked her to pray for you. I took a sip of my broth, averting my gaze. It fell on the other places Ma had set on our table: two sets of plates, bowls, forks and spoons that mirrored ours on the circular table, still untouched. So, what, are you converted? I asked, chewing slowly. There was a pause. I watched Ma as she watched the fish watching me. No, Ma said finally. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. No I’m not a convert, Ma continued, but there must be a god. I lifted my eyebrows and speared a bit of pork, dipping it in soy-sauce.
There must be a god, Ma repeated, meeting my eyes. Or else, why are things like this?