— Debbie Duncan
By Emily Jiang
Ba cut fruit for you to eat. Ma prepared money for you to spend. Nai Nai designed a ship for you to sail across the Milky Way.
But I knew what you really need. I made you a three-piece suit with a matching bow tie. Because bow ties complete the look, you used to say, especially if they are blue. Tucked in the vest pocket was a gold sticker for your fob watch. You might never use this watch because you were always late. But Nai Nai said that in heaven, time will curve towards you, not away, as you used to say.
"Everything is curvier in heaven," said Nai Nai, and I believed her. I still do. "The fire is lit," said Ba. This afternoon, he and Ma cleared our backyard to install a new fire pit, just for tonight's occasion.
In front of the fire, Ba assembled a table of your favorite fruits: a mountain of shelled lychees, smooth and pale; a plate of Fuji apples cut into wedges, alternating with peach slices, and a row of dragon fruit, each slice perfectly oval, bright pink rind surrounding the grey-white flesh speckled with small black seeds.
"These fruits are out of season," said Ma, "and so expensive."
"Only the best for my father," said Ba.
"But you bought too many," said Ma. "The four of us cannot possibly finish all of this." "Only the best ..." Ba coughed, blinked rapidly. He did not finish his sentence. He took off his glasses and pinched his nose. "Only ..." he started again, but the coughs returned. Ma linked her arm with his and put her head against his shoulder.
"I'll eat all the peaches," I said, taking Ba's other hand, which was startlingly cold. "And maybe an apple." Ba's favorite fruits were the lychees, and it was almost guaranteed he would finish them all himself. But now he had barely eaten anything for almost a week.
He smiled and squeezed my hand. "You should try the dragon fruit, too."
"If Nai Nai doesn't eat them all," I said, relieved to hear an almost-chuckle rumbling from Ba's chest.
"It's almost time," he said with a half-cough. He squeezed my hand again as he asked, "Are you ready?"
I wanted to say yes, but instead, I let go of his hand to double-check your paper suit tucked in my pocket. Your jacket was designed with wide shoulders and collars so thick you could wear all your army medals lined in neat rows. Your trousers were cut a little short to reveal wing-tipped shoes of carbon paper and crayon-colored argyle socks, each with a hole carefully snipped in the toes, just like your favorite pair. You liked your toes to breathe. "I'm not ready," I said in a gasp, surprised at the sudden blockage in my throat, at the wetness filling my eyes.
"It's okay," said Ma. "Money should always go first." She tossed a packet of paper into the fire pit, and the flames grew. So did the shadows. The ends of the paper curled as they caught fire.
"But the paper is blank," I said.
"It's spiritual money," said Ma.
"How do you know how much you're sending if it's blank?"
"It's however much we want it to be," said Ma. "It's enough that we are sending it." "But will he need money in heaven?" I wondered.
"Of course," said Ma. "He can show it to all his friends."
"His friends?" I don't know why, but it made me feel better to know that you have company in heaven.
"His friends keep him company while his family are still here. But his friends cannot give him their money. Because we are his family, we need to provide for him," said Ma. "Just like he provided for his father and mother and his grandfather and grandmother."
"So if Nai Nai ... " The thought of losing her, too, made me close my eyes and cough as if I could get rid of all my emotions through my breath.
"Of course you will send me a wonderful treat," said Nai Nai. She placed the box containing your present on the ground beside me. She sat on the box and gently pinched my cheek. I let her hold on for a moment before pulling away.
"What do you want?" I asked.
"A story," said Nai Nai, simply.
"That's a wonderful gift. The best gift. The most unique because it comes only from you," she said. "The best is to send something every year. Don't forget." "I won't," I promised.
"Are you ready?" Ma called, looking directly at me.
I wondered if my paper suit, something so small, so fragile, was good enough for you. I wondered if you would even bother to wear it.
At that time, Nai Nai opened her box to reveal her gift, a boat made entirely of folded and cut paper. It was longer than my arm and wider than my leg. It had three masts and three sails, with a brown paper anchor attached with string to one end and an origami dragon at the prow.
Nai Nai's arms full of paper, her face pressing into the middle sail, she lifted her creation and walked stiffly towards the fire. She dropped her boat on top of the low-burning fire, and the ends of the boat balanced on the edges of the fire pit. The anchor swayed over the flames, and the dragon's shape was covered with a thin layer of smoke.
"Ma, this is ridiculous," said Ba. "There's no need for a boat in heaven."
"It's not a boat, it's a ship," said Nai Nai.
"It's a fire hazard," said Ba. "And ridiculous."
"It's modeled after the main ship of the great explorer Zheng He. He sailed during the Ming Dynasty, one of the greatest in all of China's history," said Nai Nai. "You should know this."
"Your ridiculous ship does not fit," said Ba.
"Where there's a will, there's a way," said Nai Nai. She lowered the anchor into the fire.
Ba sighed and joined her, and together they gently folded and angled the ship into the pit. The origami dragon stuck out above the rest of the ship, half on fire.
"I remember we crossed the Pacific on a boat like this," said Nai Nai dreamily. "With a dragon?" I asked.
"Well, maybe not a dragon," said Nai Nai. "But I added it because he liked dragons." "I thought dragons ate people," I said.
"Not in China. In China they are bringers of good luck."
"Dragons only exist in fairy tales," said Ba.
"Perhaps. They also live in dreams," agreed Nai Nai unexpectedly. "You know his dream was to return to the motherland, but it just wasn't safe."
Ba coughed some more, muttering about smoke as he took off his glasses and turned away, wiping his eyes.
"Are you ready?" she asked me.
I stared at my custom-made suit. It took me fifteen minutes to shape the perfect fedora, your hat of choice because the brim hid your bald spots at your hairline. But my proudest achievement was your sword with a red thread tassel. The suit was so perfect, too perfect, and I did not want to send it to you. I did not want to admit that you were gone.
The fire grew, feeding on the gifts of money and boat, no, the ship. Nai Nai poked at the flames with a sharp stick. Baba had his eyes closed the entire time and Mama had her arm tight around his waist.
The sun was setting, and the autumn wind blew and flared the flames in the fire pit to new heights. Nai Nai took my hand, and her wedding ring felt surprisingly warm against my fingers.
"See the moon?" she said, pointing with our clasped hands.
"It's almost full," I said.
"Full is the perfect time to set sail."
"So he can see and explore."
"He can explore here," I said, half-coughing against the sudden lump in my throat. My paper suit crumpled so easily in my hand, and the edges poked at my palm. "He could have explored more."
"True," she said. She squeezed my hand for a long moment before she spoke again. "Your suit is wonderful."
"It's crumpled and torn."
"He will smile while wearing it," she said. "It looks so...warm."
"There are holes in the socks."
"He always liked his toes to breathe."
"He did..." The lump in my throat swallowed the rest of my words, I could not finish. Nai Nai looked down at our hands clasped together, swinging in a steady rhythm like a pendulum. Back and forth, forth and back. Our hands overheated, her wedding ring, too. I thought about letting go as the sweat collected between our fingers, but I did not. I savored the heat that warmed me more than the giant fire.
"The moon is so full," said Nai Nai. "It must be so cold up there."
"He's cold?" I had never thought it would be cold in heaven.
"Must be," she said. "Because in heaven they only give you slippers made of clouds and a thin robe made of moonlight."
"Moonlight can't be warm," I insisted.
"He's probably not smiling very much right now," I said slowly, remembering that you only smiled when you were absolutely warm down to your breathing toes. "No, indeed."
"Ma," calls Dad, "your boat needs ..."
"I see, I see," said Nai Nai. She kissed my fingers before she left me to tend to her burning ship.
I wiped the sweat from my hand, suddenly cold. I opened my other hand and smooth out my paper suit. The pants were truly wrinkled, and the hat had a small crease. Everything else, miraculously, seemed to be intact, including the holy socks, the gold watch, and the red tasseled sword.
"Fire's almost gone," said Nai Nai. Shadows and light flickered across her face. She looked tired, or worse, really old. She smiled at me, but it did not light up her face the way it normally does.
"Why are you smiling?" I asked her.
"I'm sending them to heaven." She smiled more. New wrinkles creased around her mouth. A new glint glimmered in her eye.
"Because my boat sails better if fueled by smiles," was her simple reply. "Do you want to try it?"
I tried to smile, but the moon became a watery blur.
"Fire's almost gone," said Nai Nai. "About time, too, to go home. My cheeks are hurting."
"Wait," I said.
I walked to stand beside her. Taking a deep breath, I looked up at the moon, almost completely full. It was orange, and the dark spots on the moon seemed to hover and shift and dance as I searched for your face. Nothing. But it seemed like, just for a moment, the moon was smiling at me.
I tossed my present into the pit.
When the flame licked the sleeve, the suit blackened at the edges before curling...your shoes and socks burned blue...the red thread tassel was the last to catch fire ... your hat was the first to ash.
I blinked at the smoke sending my gift to the heavens, where you, late for your next adventure, were waiting, pacing in your worn cloud slippers and thin moonlight robe. I lifted my cheeks and widen my mouth to match Nai Nai's smiles, sending you enough fuel for your boat to cross the Milky Way.
That was one year ago to this day. Now I am sending this story, my second paper present, to you, wherever you are, whenever you might be. Nai Nai says you will like it, and I hope she is right. I am sending it with a ream of paper decorated with smiley faces, each wearing a different expression to match the different phases of the moon, your constant harbor. Sometimes at twilight, when the shadows shimmer purple-red, if I squint hard enough beyond the moon, I can see you standing proud aboard Nai Nai's ship. Sword in hand, fedora tilted at a rakish angle, you look dashing, grinning from ear to ear as you sail among the stars.
This story contains 2235 words.
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