Auntie Lu was drunk. It was a sloppy, uncontrolled inebriation, a stumble off the edge of propriety rather than a purposeful dive. Not that anyone was here to judge her, not tonight. After all, allowances had to be made when a woman lost her sister.
The rest of Vida’s family sat in the living room, where a small shrine had been set up in the centre, around the large framed picture of Beatrice Wong, Vida’s mother. The numerous candles on the table surface cast dancing reflections on the polished glass of the picture frame, making the smiling woman in the photograph seem even more still and lifeless in contrast. There were flowers everywhere, strung with banners and cards written in English and Tagalog and Chinese. The wreaths hung proud from special easels, or leaned against walls; the arrangements stood erect in tall vases or cascaded artfully from stands. These were the leftovers, the condolences sent by less important family or business associates that would not fit in the largest room at the most expensive funeral parlour. The combined smell was thick and suffocating in the humid Manila heat despite the wooden fans rattling futilely in the corners of the room. Somehow the scent of the lilies rose above the others, marking this place, like a dog might mark its territory, as a house in mourning.
Vida’s mother was dead.
Vida’s remaining family surrounded her: her older sister, Belinda, the doctor; her younger brother, Barry, the musician; and a dozen or so other kin that were deemed close enough to visit the family home the night before the funeral. There were no smiles to be seen: Beatrice’s death was too recent, too sudden, for happy memories to intrude. Numerous cheeks dampened by tears caught the same mad candlelight that was reflected by the dead woman’s picture frame. There was muted talk, pockets of silence punctuated by Uncle Ramiro blowing his nose like an elephant trumpeting, and everywhere Vida looked there were signs of mourning. Beatrice had been well-loved.
Auntie Lu is drunk, my mother is dead, and I will not cry, Vida thought to herself. It was the last thing she could do for her mother, the last way she could prove she was deserving to be Mrs. Beatrice Wong’s middle child. Vida had been punished for showing such weakness since she was small, her mother or her nanny berating her for crying when her life was so blessed. She was threatened with expulsion from the large home, the plentiful food, the closets of clothing, so she could join the mongrel children in the streets for showing such ingratitude. Even when Vida’s beloved father had died and his children stood before his embalmed body to bow three times before the coffin, she had felt her mother’s sharp gaze on her. Though her thin body had trembled with the effort of holding in her tears, and her palms remained scarred to this day with thin crescent-shaped cuts from her nails, so tight were her fists balled around the three sticks of smoking incense she gripped, she did not weaken, and was rewarded with a grudging nod from her mother.
Her siblings were never held to the same standard, or perhaps had less qualms about deviating from their mother’s lessons: they cried then as they did now, heads together, shoulders shaking with the force of their grief. They comforted and leaned on each other, as they always had, and she stood alone, as she had since her father died nearly three years ago. Vida missed her father with a sudden pang so deep it felt as though her entire body throbbed with the pain of it, followed swiftly by a wave of guilt as she forced herself to stare at the picture of her mother, who had never smiled so warmly at her second child as she did at the photographer. It was much easier not to cry for her mother.
“She needs to know,” Auntie Lu’s voice rose and everyone looked over to see her arguing with her brother, Vida’s uncle Max. The man shook his head, large right hand tightly gripping his younger sister’s arm, and whispered to her urgently. His other hand patted the air near her, a dampening gesture, as you might see an animal trainer do to calm a trained beast. To Vida’s surprise, their eyes were darting in her direction.
“We promised Beatrice, Lucinda,” Max’s voice held a reminder, a warning.
“She is dead, Max. Bea is dead and this has gone on long enough!” Lu made to wrench her small arm out of her brother’s grip but he released her. His mouth was a tight small line and he wouldn’t meet Vida’s eyes.
The scent of the flowers really was overwhelming. Vida found it hard to breathe as her family’s eyes traveled from her to Auntie Lu, who finished her glass of wine in two swallows, as though she needed the liquid fortitude. Lu powered her bird-like frame upwards and strode her way past the sitting cousins and around the flowers to sit in a chair beside Vida.
“Bea swore us to secrecy, Max and me,” Lu told her niece, holding Vida’s hands tightly in her own. Vida noticed Lu’s upper body was weaving as she sat, and her cataract-ringed eyes were not focusing. The stink of white wine blended with the smell of lilies inside Vida’s nostrils, a nauseating combination. The woman wondered if her aunt would wake up tomorrow with a hangover and regrets, but she made no move to quiet the older woman.
“Vida, Bea was not your mother,” Lu’s grip tightened around Vida’s hands, vague eyes finally catching the shocked woman’s own, so that Vida heard rather than saw the reaction of the rest of her family. There were gasps and muttered whispers that were nothing compared to the rush of blood pounding in her ears. When Vida tore her eyes away to look around her, she saw the familiar faces made strange by shock, felt her own mouth open to – what, to object, to scream?
“You mean Pa . . .” Vida’s brother Barry said.
Lu shook her head adamantly, wisps of greying brown hair escaping from the tight bun she always wore. “Your father never knew. The child they were expecting died during birth, while your father was away on a business trip. Your mother went into town with me and we purchased a newborn from a poor single mother to present as Bea’s own. Benjamin never suspected.”
Vida looked at her siblings for help, suddenly unmoored. She saw the delight in one face, disgust on the other, and found no safety in either. Ripping her hands free from Lu’s startling strength, Vida used her right hand to push against the seat of her chair so she could stand upright amidst the swirling of the room. It was as though Lucinda had shared her drunkenness along with the horrible secret. Why had her aunt told her in front of so many people?
“Excuse me,” Vida said, her voice sounding as far away as her mother’s might have, across the veil of life. She stumbled out of the living room and ran upstairs. Vida thought she was headed to her mother’s room, but even as she neared the door her ingrained sense of feeling unwelcome there turned her feet so that she ended up in her father’s office, a place full of happy memories. Vida shut the door, leaned against it as her heart pounded and her breathing rasped in her ears.
Things began to make sense, now. Painful memories that would not die in peace but churned inside her for decades, sharpening like sickles with each reliving, began to fall into place. The way her mother’s mouth would twist in displeasure when someone would compliment Vida’s appearance. Bea would answer with the same, “This one is as brown and plain as a peasant, I should have left her in the field where I found her,” which was always laughed off as a joke. Vida neared the family portrait her father had hung on his wall and stared at the deceased woman. They shared the same straight black hair of many Filipino Chinese, and though Beatrice was paler than Vida, that might have been due to the layers of lightening makeup her mother had applied before leaving the house each day. Vida’s eyes were larger, her nose broader, her lips fuller. Barry and Belinda shared their father’s round face, his straight, much coveted nose that so resembled a Westerner’s. Because Vida had never looked like her father, she thought she got her looks from her mother. It had never occurred to her that neither of them were her parents.
The unknotting of these family ties meant she was alone. After so many years, it turned out that she had never known her real family, those that were willing to sell their own vulnerable newborn in a likely attempt to stave off starvation for another few weeks. She wondered at all the times she had wandered into the town, oblivious that her actual mother might have been there, perhaps staring at the wealthy walk by with eyes deadened by hunger, her true siblings running naked in the filthy street, ribs in stark relief beneath the layers of dirt, as they held their hands out to beg for coin. Vida began to understand why her mother – no, why Beatrice – had flown into such a rage whenever Vida cried as a child, or asked for the same treat Barry and Belinda had received freely. Hadn’t saving the small girl from a life of poverty been enough?
Why had Beatrice bothered to replace her dead infant? Her husband was not a hard man and he loved his wife. He would have understood – these tragedies were common enough when you delivered at home, nearly four decades ago. What had possessed this woman to discard the stillbirth, to force herself into town, still bleeding and sore, to buy a spawn she would never love as her own? Vida laid a shaking finger over the image of the woman she knew as her mother, trying to make peace with this new revelation. She could no more understand Beatrice’s motives in death than she could in life. The secret Auntie Lu had shared birthed more questions than answers.
Vida was least loved. She learned this not as she had her lessons, by being told or by reading from texts; rather, she saw the truth of the matter the way she might stare at her activity books, trying to spot the differences between two seemingly identical pictures. Little Vida knew that even though the three children in their family behaved the same, her mother had no spare affection or praise for her alone and Vida was always too afraid, too uneasy in her place in the family, to ask the reason. She wasn’t surprised when she was blamed out of all the children for any mischief; that the worry her mother showed for the other two was never felt for her; she knew better than to complain when Barry and Belinda began to exclude her from their play, their plans. After all, they learned to neglect their sister from their mother’s knee. Maturity had brought an eventual camaraderie amongst the three, but it was never an open warmth, kept a shameful secret lest the family matriarch disapprove. Barry and Belinda had not known the truth, that much was obvious. They had been as shocked at the news as she: the expressions on their faces were too authentic.
Vida wondered if Pa would have loved her the same if he had known. Perhaps the greatest kindness Beatrice had shown Vida, aside from buying her, was to have kept the transaction a secret, let others show the young girl the love that Beatrice herself could not. Certainly the extended family that had frequented their home had filled Vida’s memories with laughter, teasing, and play. She heard those same voices downstairs now, the rise and ebb of an argument reaching her ears. Eventually she heard footsteps climbing up the stairs, moving unerringly towards her father’s office where she was hiding.
A knock at the door made the latch bolt rattle inside the loose strike plate.
“Vi? We know you’re in there,” Barry said.
“Come back downstairs, we need to talk,” Belinda said,
Vida drew a shuddering breath. What more could she lose? The family she had grown up with, loved as her own, was not hers. Her precious memories of her father would always be tainted now with doubt: if he had known, how might he have treated her instead? If they wished her out of the house, out of the family business that she’d learned to run when Barry showed no interest and Belinda was too busy with school, then so be it. Vida had already lost everything that mattered.
She opened the door, for once grateful that her mothe . . . Beatrice, how difficult it was to think of the woman in any other way . . . had taught Vida to control her emotions. There was no embarrassed wiping of tears, no tell-tale swelling of eyes or snuffling of nose. In this moment, the one thing she had left was her pride, and she would not show weakness.
Vida walked ahead of the siblings with chin lifted, feeling as though she were marching towards the executioner’s chopping block rather than towards people she had known her entire life. Her family’s voices, once audible from behind a closed door one floor above, were mute now. Belinda pressed down on Vida’s trembling shoulder and Vida sat down on the chair she’d vacated before.
To Vida’s very great surprise, Auntie Lu knelt at her feet, an unheard of act for an elder to do to someone a generation below them. Her aunt gripped her hand with both of hers and pressed her forehead to Vida’s knee. The tears that fell on Vida’s leg felt cool when the noisy wooden fans turned in her direction.
“I shouldn’t have told you, child,” Auntie Lu said, half in Tagalog, half in Chinese, as the people in her family were prone to do. “Not like this. Your Auntie Lu has had too much to drink.”
Vida stayed silent, though she was bursting with questions: she was afraid the shaking in her voice would betray her.
“Our family says,” here Lu circled her finger in the air, a gesture that encompassed everyone in the room; Vida’s heart had leapt at the word ‘our’, “that Max and I should explain your history. It will be the first time any of them have heard the story as well. Do you want to hear it?”
Vida nodded, avoiding the stares of the others.
“When Bea was in labour, Lu and I came with the midwife,” Uncle Max said, eyes shiny as polished glass, “we knew right away there was something wrong. There was no crying. The baby did not cry, and Bea would not cry. So Lu and I cried on their behalf.” He gulped and his eyes bulged and reddened, and the story faltered.
Lu took up the tale to give her brother time to collect himself. “The midwife mentioned what bad luck it was for a family as rich as ours, and how just yesterday she had delivered a newborn to a single woman who was so poor, it was surely a death sentence for the babe. And Bea looked up and demanded the midwife take us to the new mother.”
“I drove them,” Uncle Max told Vida. “They didn’t want the drivers to gossip, so I took them myself. It was by the black river, near the chinatown, where the poorest of the poor live. The midwife told us she couldn’t in good conscience even charge the new mother a fee. I stood guard outside while the women went inside.”
“Why did she buy me?” Vida said. The scars on her palms ached and she realized that she’d let go of her Aunt’s hands and balled her own into tight fists.
“She wanted to do some good in the world, to make her loss a gift for someone else. She wanted your father and older sister to have good news instead of sad,” Vida’s aunt said. “I don’t think she thought about how powerful her own feelings would be.” That was the vinegar splashed onto the wound of her existence, Vida thought; her mother was so generous and kind when it came to considering others, and Vida was the unnourished seedling untouched by the blazing sun.
“It’s awful, the way she treated you, and how she kept this a secret,” said Belinda, and others shushed the doctor for speaking ill of her dead mother.
“Who knew the respectable Mrs. Beatrice Wong would carry out such a covert mission,” Barry said with a hoot, ever the spirited youngest child. He too was shushed.
“And my real parents? The ones who sold me?” Vida asked, swallowed the lump of emotion catching in her throat like a fishbone.
Auntie Lu clamped her lips together then, looking as though she would burst into fresh tears. Uncle Max stepped in, helped his younger sister up, shooing a cousin out of a chair so that Lu could sit. “There wasn’t a father in the picture, not one your birth mother would admit to. She was the real victim here, Vi. Lu can’t think of her without crying.”
“She was the victim…?” Vida couldn’t help but feel indignant.
Max stroked his salt-and-pepper moustache as he stared down at her. “She was too poor to keep you, but she loved you, Child. It was for love of you that she gave you up. She would have done so just for the promise of a better life for you, but Bea made her take the money.”
“Tell her about her name,” Lu said, dabbing at her eyes with a white lace handkerchief.
“My name?” Vida felt like a parrot, repeating everyone else’s words. Her name had been a source of pain to her, a constant reminder that she did not belong; everyone else’s name in her immediate family began with the letter B. “It means ‘Life’, I looked it up.”
“Lu helped your birth mother choose it. She wanted to give you life, a life beyond what you would have had with her. But it has more than one meaning, did you know that?”
Vida shook her head. Her heart ached, a terrible pressure that threatened to undo her. Beatrice had not shown her affection, but Vida had lived a life of comfort and safety that her real mother could not provide. “What is the second meaning, then?”
Auntie Lu shed fresh tears as she spoke of a memory thirty-seven years old. “‘Vida’ also means ‘beloved’. I told your birth mother this, and when she kissed you goodbye, she said, ‘Then please let her be called Vida, so that each time someone says her name she will remember she is loved.’”
Many members of Vida’s family, the only family she had known, came forward to comfort her. Only then did she realize that for the first time since she could remember, Vida was crying. She felt the tears come and she let them fall: a release of emotion, a baptism of sorts, as she gave thanks for the gifts from her mothers.