DEEP IN THE CLOSET OF the master bedroom, buried beneath piles of winter blankets and heavy coats, was an old leather trunk. It might have been bright red once upon a time. But the years had patched it with stains and lighter portions where the leather had worn away.
Mia helped Aunt Lin lug the trunk from the closet, each of them grabbing a dark metal handle. The trunk was heavier than it looked, and Mia was already noodle-armed from jet lag. She’d arrived in China less than twenty-four hours ago, and most of that time had been spent in transit—taking the train from Shanghai to Fuzhou, and then the taxi here, to this apartment. Her eyes kept slipping shut, trying to remind her that while
it was midafternoon in Fuzhou, it was the middle of the night back in America.
Once the trunk was out in the open, Mia saw that it was nearly large enough for her to climb inside. An image came to her—a snapshot of her curled in the trunk like a sleeping fairy, waiting for someone to wake her. Or maybe bound like a prisoner, straining at the rope around her wrists. That was the more exciting story, the kind Mia usually liked. But right now, sleeping for a hundred years sounded like the better option.
“Lost in your head again?” Aunt Lin smiled and brushed a strand of hair from Mia’s face, bringing her back from her imaginings. “Come, let’s see what’s in this thing.”
She rummaged around the nightstand until she produced an ancient-looking key. Mia was surprised her aunt still knew her way around. Aunt Lin and Mia’s mother had grown up in this apartment, but it had been years and years since they’d been here last.
Mia had expected them to feel like she did—a puzzle piece that didn’t fit.
Glum again, she pulled her knees against her chest. This month-long visit to China was supposed to be a
Great Opportunity for Mia and her older brother, Jake, to see where their family had come from. The last time they’d visited, Mia had been so little she barely remembered it.
You loved it, Mia’s mother had said. You had so much fun.
But back then, Mia hadn’t met Thea and Lizbeth yet. She hadn’t cared that the trip would rip her from home for a third of summer vacation. The three of them hadn’t spent a summer apart in years. Mia would make it back just in time to celebrate her twelfth birthday, but that wasn’t much consolation.
A month was a long time to be apart from your best friends.
Anything might happen.
Aunt Lin sat and tucked an arm around Mia so they sloped against each other. “Do you want to open it?” she said, holding out the key. She grinned, like they were explorers—or maybe adventurous archaeologists, having just unearthed a treasure. She knew how much Mia enjoyed mysteries.
The lock turned with a satisfying click. Mia opened the lid slowly and peeked inside.
The first thing she saw was a big, square book. It
wasn’t until she laid it open in her lap that she realized it wasn’t a book at all, but a photo album. Inside, the photos weren’t slipped into plastic pockets, but pasted onto black paper pages, like a scrapbook.
“Can you recognize your mother and me in any of those?” Aunt Lin said. She was lifting other things out of the trunk—a small frame of embroidered silk, a slender, cloth-wrapped vase. For a minute, Mia was too distracted to look at the album.
But she couldn’t keep her eyes away for long. She squinted at each picture. Some were tiny, barely bigger than a postage stamp. Others were the size of her palm. All were black-and-white, though a couple looked like someone had tried to color them in afterward and hadn’t done a very good job.
“That’s Mom,” Mia said, pointing at a family photo.
Her mother and Aunt Lin bookended a collection of four children, Aunt Lin the eldest, Mia’s mother the baby. In the photograph, all four siblings gathered in a solemn huddle around the seated forms of Mia’s late grandmother and grandfather. Her mother was barely more than a toddler, but she had the same sweet, round face she had now.
“And that’s you, with the braids.” This time, Mia pointed at the eldest child. The girl was maybe fourteen—around Jake’s age. There was a familiar glint in her dark eyes, as if she were thinking of a joke.
On the next page, Mia found a picture of just the two of them—her mother and Aunt Lin holding hands and laughing at the camera. This time her mom looked to be four or five.
“That was the first day of my senior year of high school,” Aunt Lin said. “One of your grandmother’s friends borrowed a camera from someone.”
She smiled and took the photo album in her careful, life-weathered hands. “Life-weathered” was a term Mia had learned from Aunt Lin, since no one but Aunt Lin used it. Her aunt liked to mash English words together, or substitute one word in a common phrase for another that suited her better. You understand what I mean, she’d say, and Mia always did.
The two of them weren’t like the rest of the people in Mia’s little family. They weren’t like Mia’s mom, who was always punctual, and loved to-do lists, and never let her thoughts wander off when they were supposed to be pinned down. They weren’t like Jake, who did well
in school without even trying, who always had people inviting him over to play basketball, or soccer, or tennis.
They weren’t like Mia’s dad, who’d left one day when Mia was little and never came back.
They were only like each other. Cotton-candy-headed, as Mia’s mom sometimes teased; Weird, as Jake always complained. They loved stories and history and make-believe—and the exciting places where those things blurred into one another.
“Look,” Aunt Lin said. “This is a picture of me during the Chinese New Year. I was nineteen—it was my first time home after being sent down to the countryside.”
Mia studied the picture. It was hard to tell in the black-and-white photo, but her aunt looked heavily tanned. Her hair was still in braids, her smile secret and winking.
When a younger Mia had first heard her aunt’s stories about her years in the countryside, she’d thought they sounded pretty exciting. Mia didn’t have a head for school. She daydreamed through math and English classes alike, distracted by every passing noise in the hallway. Her teachers were always telling her to sit still, to keep her eyes forward.
To think about something that wasn’t fantasy.
She thought she would have preferred tramping around outdoors every day, planting baby rice shoots, or hand-making bricks, or threshing wheat. She’d helped out at Thea’s horse barn before, and that had been fun, the two of them giggling through their tasks and getting straw in their hair.
But she knew Aunt Lin had wanted to go straight to university after high school. She’d dreamed of becoming a history professor—not of being stuck doing farm work in rural China. She’d been there nearly three years before being allowed to come home again. Only then had she applied for university.
“Were you homesick?” Mia said. “When you were down in the country?”
“Of course,” Aunt Lin said. “I missed my old friends. I missed my family—especially your mother! She was my little darling.”
Mia always felt funny when she tried to think of her mother as a child—small enough to be someone’s little darling. She was so grown up now.
“Ah! Here it is.” Aunt Lin had gotten to the bottom of the trunk, and she lifted something swathed in
layers of cloth. Mia pressed closer as her aunt undid the wrappings.
It was a Chinese brush painting of two black-and-white cranes. One had its wings lifted wide, as if in a dance. The other stared at the sky, its long neck curved in a sinuous S. Both bore a flash of red at the crowns of their delicate heads. Behind them stretched a rolling landscape of mountain peaks and valleys, cut through by a winding stream.
Aunt Lin sat back on her knees, the painting in her lap. “I haven’t seen this in a long, long time. It was your grandmother’s favorite painting. She used to hang it in her bedroom, right there—” She pointed to an empty spot on the wall by the closet door. “That way, she could see it every morning when she got out of bed.”
Mia’s grandparents had passed away long ago. She’d never even met them. Sometimes her mother or Aunt Lin would bring them up—say things like, Oh, remember what Mom used to do? or Dad always liked those, but mostly, Mia’s grandparents were a mystery to her. The majority of her extended family was.
She tried to picture the woman her grandmother had been once upon a time. Someone who’d loved these
dainty cranes so much she’d hung them in her bedroom. Someone who’d breathed and hummed and walked through this apartment, her feet pressed against the same floors Mia sat on now.
“Did Uncle take the painting down after she died?” Mia asked. Only her uncle still lived in this apartment. Aunt Lin and Mia’s mother had moved to the United States long ago, and their remaining sister lived hours away, in another city.
Aunt Lin shook her head. “Your grandmother took it down herself. I think I was in middle school then, or maybe high school. This painting is a family heirloom—it’s very old and very precious. It’s a piece of history.”
“Was she afraid someone would break it?”
There was a beat of silence before Aunt Lin answered. “There was a time when no one in China wanted anything to do with things that were old, and precious, and pieces of history,” she said. “Or if they did—they kept quiet about it.”
The room grew still. Mia got the shivery, unsettled feeling she always did when her aunt’s mood dipped. Aunt Lin was seldom sad, but when she did get that way, it felt like doors closing in Mia’s face. Like her aunt
withdrew somewhere deep inside herself, where Mia couldn’t follow.
Mia hated that more than anything. Even more than when Aunt Lin got overly excited about something and wandered off. At least then Mia could think of her aunt as a daredevil traveler—a swashbuckling heroine like those in Mia’s favorite books. Besides, Aunt Lin always warned Mia before leaving on one of her sudden journeys, even if she forgot to tell anyone else.
The one time she hadn’t, Mia had cried every day Aunt Lin was gone. Your aunt has always been like this, her mother had said in an attempt to comfort her. She gets hooked by something—a new exhibition on tombs, a talk about ancient kings—and forgets everything else. Don’t worry. She always finds her way back.
But this had happened only months after Mia’s parents had divorced; Mia had been very little. She hadn’t believed that anyone who’d leave so abruptly would come home again.
Once she returned a few days later, Aunt Lin had sworn up and down that she’d never again take off without leaving Mia a message. That she’d never be gone when Mia needed her.
In all the years since, she’d never broken that promise.
Mia rested her chin against her aunt’s shoulder and racked her brain for something—anything—helpful to say. Something that would bring her aunt back to her. “Can we take the painting with us when we leave? If your brother doesn’t want it? You could hang it in your bedroom at home.”
To her relief, Aunt Lin laughed. “Maybe we can. But it’s far too early to talk about leaving—we’ve only just arrived. Did you want to see where my school used to be? Or the park where your mother liked to play when she was little?”
Mia just hugged Aunt Lin even tighter. “Will you take me?”
“Of course,” Aunt Lin said. She kissed the top of Mia’s head. “We’re going to spend this whole trip together. I promise.”