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"The Seventh Year" – published in The Queen of Statue Square

Short story anthologized in The Queen of Statue Square, a collection of new short fiction from Hong Kong edited by Marshall Moore and Xu Xi. (Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, Nottingham 2014.)

Amazon.com link here.

Excerpt from opening:

WHEN EDWIN SAID ONE MORNING over breakfast that he had to go home to sort out Helena’s bones, the first image that came to mind was my husband standing in a grave, waving a femur in the air, sporting waders like a fly fisherman. He had to be joking, obviously. I’d never heard the Cantonese phrase he used, and frankly, it sounded obscene: zap gwat, zap literally meaning to sort out or pick up, and gwat meaning bones. Edwin has always had a dark sense of humour. He likes to tease me with urban myths about human meat buns and haunted hospitals, to ‘steel my delicate American nerves,’ so he says. But it wasn’t like him to joke about his late wife. I looked up from the article I was proofing, a forkful of scrambled eggs suspended en route to my mouth. He was facing me, elbows astride an already empty plate, hands folded beneath his chin, looking serious. We were in the breakfast nook of our kitchen, surrounded by the smell of fried bacon (ours) mixed with the scent of fried garlic and dough (the neighbours’). I could hear Mr and Mrs Lu in the small lane below chattering incomprehensibly in Shanghainese. A cheerful glow from the window above the kitchen sink bathed the table and my strange, serious husband, in a soft lemony haze. There was a sharpness in his eyes that usually preceded something big, like that Sunday two years ago when he’d announced that his company was promoting him on the condition that we move from Hong Kong to Shanghai immediately, or that night three years ago when he’d taken my hands into his and asked me oh-so-solemnly if I, Connie May Kay Lam, would be his wife. Something was definitely up. I set down my fork, bummed that my eggs would be cold in a second, and waited.

‘I’m sorry, hon, you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. Zap gwat sounds weird, doesn’t it, my zuk sing mui,’ he said in a mix of Cantonese and English, touching me under the chin with two fingers. When anybody else called me zuk sing I bristled, but not when Edwin did. He said it like it was a cherished characteristic, rather than a cultural embarrassment. I left Hong Kong for the States when I was five years old, early enough to qualify me as a zuk sing mui, or bamboo-stem girl, as in a hollow tube with walls on the inside that keep things from getting through. Things like zap gwat. Since the day I moved back to Hong Kong after college, I’ve been reminded all too often of how zuk sing I really am. This was one of those times. I blushed.

Edwin moved his plate to the side and folded his arms back into an A-frame under his chin. ‘In Hong Kong, with certain public cemeteries, people are only allowed to remain in the ground for six to ten years. To, you know, make room for others. So, for Helena, it’s the seventh year.’

I focused on maintaining a neutral expression, something I always did when anything Helena-related came up. Which was almost never. Edwin was not much of a talker when it came to most things, but especially when it came to Helena. I met him three years after she died. All I knew from the bits and pieces gleaned from his friends and relatives over the years was that Edwin and Helena met in Form 1, stayed in touch even after Edwin moved to Toronto at fifteen, and married as soon as Edwin moved back to Hong Kong a few years after college. It was one of those perfect high-school-sweetheart romances that made you want to gag. Not to mention, this Helena had been one of those annoyingly beautiful girls. Opalescent skin like an elven princess in Lord of the Rings. An Asian Arwen. Except tinier and more petite than Liv Tyler. I don’t remember which of his tactful cousins told me that. Most likely Boris, the Tolkien nut.




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