It was small and unassuming, yet when the building burned down, Mother searched frantically through the rubble, her eyes wild with fear.
It was a tin teapot. Its body had once been quite round, but was flat on one side from when cousin Hua-Xiong dropped it. Mother had twisted his ear, hard, before disappearing to coax the teapot back into shape. The spout was too short for anything to pour properly, instead letting loose a graceless dribble that scalded the varnish from the table-top.
The sides, Mother said, had been painted in every colour of a silk scarf, with exquisitely detailed drawings of the Great Wall. Now, blackened by steam and by decades, all that was left was an erratic pattern of scratches made by our uncareful hands.
It was nothing but a tin teapot, but it was the only thing that Mother had managed to bring from China.
She hadn’t even been allowed to bring her name. Mother was born Lian-Hong, red lotus, but when the war came and she had to leave, the red stayed behind. She emerged Lian-Mei, bleached of her colour, clutching the teapot to her chest as if it held her heart.
She told us stories when she poured, carefully bracing her fingers on the side so that the tin didn’t burn her. I watched in awe as the teapot soared high and then dipped down to just graze the lip of a teacup, not a single drop spilling over. I imagined her kneeling on bamboo mats somewhere in a country with maple trees lining the roads and people that looked like us and loved us for it.
Sometimes she told us about the lilies, sitting peacefully on autumn ponds in the garden, and sometimes it was festivals she went to with her parents, full of bouncing paper lanterns and masks that made you roar like a tiger. When Mother told these stories, her dark eyes glittered in a way that only China could make them glitter, and when she put down the teapot, her eyes became dull again.
And sometimes it was songs, lilting, complicated melodies that flowed like the Yellow River. Mother never looked like herself when she sang. The years sloughed off her and she seemed sharper, all the raggedness of America smoothed away by the music. But she always forgot the words, or got muddled in the tune, and she would stop abruptly and look lost, so terribly lost, in this new world of bland buildings and rice that only grew in packets on supermarket shelves.
Once, I remember her telling us about a little jade Buddha who knelt on her bedside table. His kind face was the last thing she saw every night before she slept. She said flatly that she could remember the Buddha’s face better than her father’s. But then she took a sip of tea, and the cracks left by the years away were filled once more.
I began to wonder if the teapot contained more than just tea. Perhaps there was some elixir that made Mother happier under its fragile lid. I imagined its stout body from the inside: a cavern full of China, the Great Wall snaking through it, white deserts to the north and mountainous rice terraces in the south, and the sky full of curly blue clouds, just like in the paintings.
Mother insisted that we spoke Mandarin at home, and we did, but as soon as we left the house, Yue-Wan, Xia-Li and I donned our lazy American accents, and attempted to widen our flat eyes, and to have hair that did anything other than straight. We came home sometimes forgetting to shoulder our Mandarin, and Mother would look at us as if confronted by some great loss before sending us to our rooms. Our heads then bowed and we filed past, and my eyes caught the teapot steaming forlornly in the middle of the low glass table.
The night of the fire had been an island of calm among a hailstorm of news reports about Vietnam. The neighbours who used to shoot us such filthy looks had moved out the week before; Mother had told us about her home in Manchuria. I went to bed with visions of magnolia trees decked in flowers that took off and became birds, and filled the skies with the sweetest song in all of Asia.
We woke up because we couldn’t breathe. The smoke creeping under the door was black as ink. Yue-Wan screamed for us to get out. In the hallway, the smoke was thicker, blacker, angrier, and pushed down my throat like a fist.
I grabbed Xia-Li by the hand and drew her face into my chest, tugging my nightshirt over her head and up to cover my nose and mouth. With the other hand, I felt towards the front door, trying not to feel the cruel heat of the flames behind us. I couldn’t tell where the fire had started, but it was everywhere, everywhere, pressing in and blistering, and making Xia-Li buckle and wail.
We reached the door and exploded out of the flat, bent double with back-breaking coughs. My lungs felt full of tar and my nose ran black. By now the fire alarm in the building had gone off. The neighbours crowded out of their flats half-scared, half-annoyed, looking at our faces and seeking to blame.
I shoved Xia-Li down the stairs, promising to join her. I hesitated before pushing back into the smoke, but suddenly remembered Mother’s glittering eyes and soft magnolia voice, and barrelled into the flat. Yue-Wan almost crashed into me, dragging Mother, unconscious, by one arm over her shoulder. I took the other arm and together we pulled her through the door and down the stairs, out where the air was cleaner.
Yue-Wan wheezed like old bellows; her arms were streaked with soot and her eyes streamed. She did not rest until Mother was laid out on the pavement outside with her head in my lap, the newly-gathered crowd milling around us. Then she set one hand on the wall next to her, and very deliberately bent over and coughed so hard that I thought one of her lungs might come out. Xia-Li joined us and stroked Yue-Wan’s hair, ash coming away in her fingers.
I looked up at the building. It looked normal from the outside, only a faint golden glow visible from our windows. To an outsider it might have looked like we had the setting sun in our living room.
The crowd were silent. Everyone was accounted for, and the fire brigade had been called, so all we could do was wait. A woman who lived across the landing turned and looked at us.
“You did this, didn’t you,” she said. It was not a question.
Before we could answer, Mother awoke. Her eyes fluttered and stayed oddly flat for a few moments, taking us in. Then, with incongruous theatricality, she sat up straight and bolted towards the door of the building, where the newly-arrived firemen swarmed like flies. Yue-Wan had to grab her by the waist and pull her back, writhing like an ashen snake.
The morning dawned red as the New Year. The fire was born and died in our flat, touching nothing else. The kettle had short-circuited. We watched from the ground, Xia-Li with her thumb in her mouth, Yue-Wan with her arms wrapped around her knees, as Mother came down the staircase.
She cradled in her hands the spout of her teapot, the cold, mangled dregs that were all that remained of her China. Her eyes were hollow, and I was the only one who wept.