The Mama Puzzle

“The Mama Puzzle”

by Emmalia Harrington

Yide wanted to kill her twin.

“I can’t wait for Grandmother to come home from work,” Erde said, a smile in her voice. “I’ll ask her so many things.”

Erde trotted ahead, oblivious to Yide’s rage. One good push and Erde would crack her head on the Di San Xing space station path. Her easy school life would end forever.

Yide tucked her hands into her armpits. Custom stated as the elder of the pair, Yide had to be an example to her younger-by-thirty-minutes sister. “I’ll work hard to write about Mama.”

Lighter-skinned Erde was the favored twin at school; Teacher Xun called on her first. Erde declared her heritage report would be about their paternal grandmother’s family.

Mama was Black American while their classmates had full Chinese ancestry. Writing about family from China would have made Yide like everyone else. Doing a paper on Grandmother’s Chinese-Hawaiian family like Erde was doing would invite accusations of plagiarism. Yide had to write about Mama’s family if she wanted to stand out to Teacher Xun while avoiding trouble.

Erde whirled around, braids flying. Thrusting her face into Yide’s, she said, “It won’t be like last year with Teacher Li.” When Teacher Li wasn’t picking on Yide’s looks, he called her a cheater for getting high marks or calling her a thief when a pencil went missing. Erde received no such grief. “Teacher Xun will see how amazing our family is and give us both top grades.”

Yide blinked to clear the red forming in her vision. “I have to show Teacher Xun and our classmates that Teacher Li was wrong about me. I’m not dirty, I’m not stupid, I’m not—What are you doing?”

Erde had resumed her jaunt down the road. “I still have to buy dinner. Go talk to Mama and I’ll speak with Grandmother tonight.”

“You can’t get rid of me yet,” Yide said, glaring. “The shops are still a few minutes away and we need to plan our assignments.”

The closer they got to their neighborhood, the more Yide smoothed the wrinkles in her uniform. Like their school, this residential area leaned heavily Chinese. Every building was a quadrangle with the neo-siheyuan look, covered in grey brick facades and lacquer-style polymer. The structures sat close together, forming a hutong district full of alleys and shop fronts akin to old Beijing musicals.

The twins stuck out with their fluffy hair and Yide for her darker complexion. While Teacher Li liked Erde, he often sent Yide back home to wash her face, comb her hair again, change her shoes, and so on. Yide ran from school to home so much, she was sure the neighbors believed she was as sloppy as Teacher Li said.

She went home while Erde headed for the takeout stalls. Yide spent several seconds in the entryway crushing her envy before walking to the bedroom she and Erde shared.

Speed was of the essence. Yide combed and rebraided her pigtails, changed into a clean uniform and inspected her doll, Indigo. The doll looked rumpled and worn, like a well-loved toy. Yide wiped Indigo’s face and popped her into a blazer outfit. Now Indigo resembled a proper 3D-printed replica of Mama, not a plaything.

Yide plopped Indigo on her lap, triple-checked her posture and switched on her computer. Time dragged forever and ever as it booted. Once the camera icon appeared on screen, Yide double-clicked.

“Hello, Mama,” she said as the Record button flashed. “Grandmother, Erde and I will do our usual letter later. I want to talk, just the two of us.”

She breathed deep. “Teacher Xun gave us two weeks to write a paper about our families. Something about connecting with the past in the age of space exploration. I know how you met Baba, and a little bit about Grandfather Spider. I need more in order to get a good grade. Please tell me what you know of my maternal family,” came out in one breath.

A gasp later, Yide added, “I know you and Baba work hard to pay for our private school. I want to do the best I can to make you proud.” She bit her tongue before she said too much.

Yide stopped the video and hit Send. In six days, the video would reach the terraforming outpost where her parents were helping to create a new space colony. If Mama replied right away, Yide would get an answer two days before her project was due.

“Let’s pray Mama’s not too busy.” Yide and Indigo shared a moment of silence.

She squirmed. “Will Mama guess I didn’t tell her everything?”

Yide look down at Indigo. Her doll’s glassy eyes radiated concern.

“I’m the big sister and I have to act like it. Baba and Mama will be disappointed if they know I’m mad at Erde. Mama will be sad that I wanted to write my report about Grandmother’s family.” Yide gaze dropped to the floor. “They’re already upset with how Teacher Li picked on me, and them too far away to do anything about it.”

Yide squared her shoulders. “My paper has to be amazing, so everyone will know Teacher Li is a liar.

“What do you know about Mama’s people?” she asked Indigo. “Slow down, let me take notes.” She opened her writing software.

“Mama studied at Qinghua University’s Astronautical Engineering department, where she met Baba. She must like traveling because she left America for China, China for space, and her daughters for adventure.”

Dust must have floated into her eyes, making her teary. “Indigo, I know space exploration pays lots of money. I shouldn’t put that in my paper.” She lifted her doll so they met eye to eye. “Not even if I say it pays my tuition. Teacher Xun will say it’s the wrong topic.”

“Let’s look at Grandfather Spider.” She opened a thumbnail.

A museum photograph of Tear, Together appeared before her. Grandfather Spider had made the quilt, now a museum piece, in the geometric patterns his ancestors favored. Every scrap of cloth came from his and Mama’s old clothes.

Mama hadn’t said much about Grandfather Spider, other than he was an artist named Spider Lithgow. Yide had to spend three library questions to get this image and a short biography.

“I have fifteen left for the year,” she told Indigo. “It’s hardly October.” It took eighteen hours for the station’s servers to reach those on Earth. While adults moaned at the expense of emailing terrestrial libraries for information, students had fifty-two free asks a year.

“Grandfather Spider changed his given name when he was an adult. As Spider Lithgow, he made textile pieces inspired by his Black Indian heritage.” Yide turned to Indigo. “Mama changed her name to Li Anle many years ago. Is getting new names a tradition?” She made a note to research this later.

The station intranet was more concerned with Chinese people and Chinese matters than Black Americans. If Yide was going to connect with the past, her best choices were contacting Earth or Mama.

“Yide,” Erde poked her head into the room. “It’s your turn to set the table. Four places tonight.”

“One moment.” Yide sat Indigo on her desk chair before changing into play clothes and an apron.

At the doorway she eyed Erde up and down. “Why are you still in your school things? Teacher gets mad if we’re dirty.”

Erde shrugged. “We haven’t had Teacher Li since summer break.”

“You shouldn’t give Teacher Xun reason to call you bad.”

As they walked to the kitchen/living room, Yide nagged her sister over slowing down, standing straight, and other matters.

A toilet flush announced Grandmother was home. Yide arranged cups and bowls until they were picture perfect on the table. Someone would acknowledge her as good.

The doorbell sounded as she worked.

“I’ll get it.” Erde bounded out of the room. A few moments later, she returned with their paternal grandfather. He and Grandmother had divorced years ago but still remained friends.

“Good evening. Pour him tea, Erde.” If she could play the perfect sister and hostess, maybe she could redeem herself in her teachers’ eyes.

Grandmother entered the kitchen and ruffled Yide’s hair. “I haven’t seen you since breakfast,” Grandmother said. “You need to leave your computer sometimes and say hello.” She turned to Grandfather. “How have you been?”

He held up a bag. “I brought tomatoes to enjoy with dinner.”

The adults chatted while Yide and Erde ferried mantou steamed buns, meatball soup and Grandfather’s vegetables to the table.

When their grandparents hit a lull in their conversation, Erde piped up. “Grandmother, could you tell me about visiting Hawaii when you were little? The only story I remember is you eating durian with your cousins.” She turned to Grandfather. “Why don’t we grow durian in Di San Xing?”

Grandmother was more than happy to talk about her childhood. Grandfather spoke at length why growing a delicious yet stinky fruit was a bad idea in a closed air system. Yide didn’t have a hope of fitting between the three.

If Yide closed her eyes and didn’t concentrate on the words, she could be eating with Baba and Mama. She’d be like the other kids at school who complained about parents who were strict, embarrassing, or who snored too much.

After dinner and homework came the most important part of the day: parent time. While Grandmother set up chairs and video messaging in her bedroom, Yide washed her face.

“Don’t you want to look good for Baba and Mama?” she asked Erde as she dried off.

“We’ve seen them in sweat and engine grease,” Erde said. “They won’t care if I’m messy.”

Yide stuck her tongue out at her twin while tying a scarf over her own hair. “I care. What if they think I’m a bad example to you?”

Erde met her sister’s eyes. Without looking away, she wiggled off her shirt, flipped it inside out, and donned it backwards.

Yide crouched, assuming a track runner’s starting position. When Erde fled for dear life, Yide was close at her heels.

“Girls!” Grandmother shouted as the twins burst into her room. Erde hugged Grandmother from behind as Yide searched for a way to tackle her sister while avoiding their grandmother. “What did I tell you about arguments?”

“Yide says she’s a bad example,” Erde mumbled into Grandmother’s cardigan.

“Erde wants to be a mess in front of Baba and Mama.” Yide fought to keep the whining out of her voice.

Grandmother pointed at the three chairs side by side in front of her computer. “I’ll sit in the center. You two don’t interact unless you can behave.”

A few clicks later, the latest video letter appeared on the screen. Baba’s face filled the computer. “Hello!” he said. “Have you eaten?”

Mama appeared next to him. “It’s been so hectic here. Everyone’s still celebrating the new ice deposit discovery, making it impossible to work in peace. It was an effort just finding a calm place to film.”

“Our latest air processing prototypes keep failing,” Baba said. “Unlike Di San Xing, we can’t depend on plants and botanists to produce oxygen for us.”

“The soil here still makes growing vegetables a challenge,” Mama said, rueful.

The more her parents spoke of life away from Di San Xing, the deeper the ache in Yide’s chest. Terraforming was important work; so was Grandfather’s plant husbandry and Grandmother’s computer skills. But Baba and Mama could have worked at the space station and sent her and Erde to an ordinary school.

After the viewing, it was their turn to record. Yide sat up straighter and re-tucked her shirt. She hoped Mama would answer her letter from the afternoon before this evening’s group message arrived. Even if Mama didn’t care, Yide still wanted to be perfect, to keep proving Teacher Li wrong.

The first thing out of Grandmother’s mouth was the fight between the girls. Erde spoke in great length about the school project and the tomatoes they ate at dinner. Yide feared that Erde’s natter would burn out Mama’s ears, rendering Mama immune to Yide’s pleas for a speedy answer.

For the rest of the evening, Yide pondered how she could spin a five-page report from the scraps of information she had. A picture of a quilt and a blurb on Grandfather Spider wasn’t very much. Most of what she knew about Mama herself was related to her job, not the topic Teacher Xun wanted.

As they went to bed, she swallowed her pride and turned to Erde. “I need a favor from you.”

Erde’s eyes narrowed. “To fart on your pillow?”

Yide pulled off her socks. “I’ll smack you with these if you don’t listen.”

Erde responded with a rude hand gesture.

“Fine,” Yide sneered. “I won’t do your chores.”

Erde sat bolt upright. “What did you say?”

“I’ll do all your work for a week if I can use one of your library queries.”

“It’s a deal.”

There were two things Yide loved about taking over Erde’s tasks. The first happened every morning before school, when Grandmother gave her money for afternoon shopping. While Erde preferred takeout made with cloned pork, Yide was wild about noodles. Grandmother didn’t care either way, as long as she was spared the task of cooking.

Breakfast preparation was even better. Though Yide hated getting up early while Erde slept in, a half hour less rest was worth having Grandmother all to herself.

“You visited America,” Yide said as she set water to boil. “Did you meet anyone like Mama?”

“Of course,” Grandmother said, wiping down the table. “I spent most of my time playing with cousins, but I still met plenty of hard working, driven—”

“I mean heritage,” Yide said, then winced. “Sorry to interrupt. I’m trying to learn more about Black Americans for school.”

Grandmother was silent for so long, Yide’s heart stopped. “I don’t remember, dear,” Grandmother said at last. “It was so long ago, and back then I paid attention to other matters.”

Yide’s least favorite thing about taking over for Erde was less time for study. She needed every spare second to scour the intranet for data on Black Indians and other Black Americans.

The first search yielded what she already knew. Black Americans fought for freedom in the 1860s and again in the 1960s. The lack of other articles hinted Black Americans were very shy and tried to stay out of the spotlight. Grandfather Spider was either an anomaly, or as a Black Indian, counted as a different ethnic group.

Further attempts to look up Black Indians kept redirecting her to articles on the Indian subcontinent. It took two days of extra prying to reveal that Grandfather Spider might not be so strange. With a Black American president and a few celebrities, some did seek attention. It still wasn’t much to add to a report about connecting with the past via family.

Yide also spent more days than she should have aching over her library question. The last three times she had asked about Grandfather Spider, short simple things like “Who is Spider Lithgow?” yielded skimpy answers. To get a full page of research, she’d have to find the perfect phrasing.

“Tell me everything you know about Spider Lithgow and his family” had too much potential for a minimal reply. If she was going to show everyone at school what she was made of, she had to expand her paper from its current half-page. Maybe “Give me Spider Lithgow’s full biography” would work.

During all this, Erde devoted her spare time to writing her own assignment or pestering Grandmother for memories. Grandmother had endless things to say about Hawaii. She also spoke at length about growing up in China and how her parents kept their heritage alive at home.

Yide couldn’t tell which emotion was stronger: disappointment or rage. It wasn’t right how Erde learned about Grandmother’s family right away while Yide fought for every scrap about Grandfather Spider. Mama should be in Di San Xing, helping Yide with her homework.

The Boston Public Library came to Yide’s rescue. Three days after she sent her ask, they emailed her three whole paragraphs on Grandfather Spider. He had earned two degrees in fine arts, with a concentration on textiles. Whenever possible, he made pieces inspired from his heritage, including unique patchwork designs. He had trouble selling his work, and spent decades teaching Black and Indian art history.

Yide danced in her seat. This was what great reports were made of!

She read on. Grandfather Spider married young, divorced soon after, and rarely saw his child, Mama. Many of his works, including the museum quilt, included Mama’s outgrown clothes. There was nothing on his parents or grandparents.

Yide stared at her lap for a long time. The apron she wore was stained and threadbare.  It was a nicer sight than her computer screen. Grandfather Spider did amazing things, but spent most of his adulthood alone. Mama too stayed far away from family. Yide didn’t like what this hinted about her future. She’d be worse than the dirty, lying nitwit that Teacher Li accused her of being. Yide would be someone who abandoned loved ones.

Yide decided to place her thoughts elsewhere. She bolted from her desk and out of her room.

Erde waved at her from the kitchen table. Grandmother sat beside her. Between them was a bowl of shriveled fruit dusted with crimson powder.

“Try some,” Erde said. “Grandmother says it tastes like the li hing mui she ate when she was little.”

There must have been raw onions mixed with the li hing mui. Yide’s eyes burned while her throat stung until it hurt to speak. She went to the refrigerator and gulped half a bottle of tea before she could say, “May I visit Grandfather?”

Yide took the back route to Grandfather’s apartment. Its paths were narrow and twisty, but there were fewer people to watch her sniffle.

It wasn’t right how Erde got all the luck. Yide would love to bond with Mama over treats and hear stories in real time. The paper should have been an excuse to hear tales of family reunions and get-togethers. What she got was a library answer about divorce and living alone.

By the time she got to Grandfather’s door, she had a handkerchief over her face to hide the mucus dripping down her lips. Yide was proud her eyes remained dry, but wasn’t sure how long that would last. She made sure to wipe excess moisture from her nose before knocking.

When Grandfather opened the door, he took one look at her and sped off to make tea. He steeped his yellowest chrysanthemum flowers and added plenty of sugar, the way Yide liked it.

“Have a seat,” he said, setting up teapot and cups.

“I’ll pour,” Yide said. Focusing on manners might take her mind off things.

Grandfather shook his head. “Your task is to tell me what’s the matter.”

She pursed her lips. Talking about Mama or Erde might sound like complaining, but honesty was best. “You know that family paper I’m working on? Please tell me what you know about Mama.”

Grandfather didn’t look convinced. “Is that all?”

Yide nodded hard, making her vision blur.

“How far have you gotten on your assignment?”

“I’m at three pages now that I wrote about Grandfather Spider’s Tear, Together quilt,” Yide said as she sipped her tea. Her shoulders drooped. “Will Teacher Xun be mad I wrote so much about Grandfather Spider?”

“Why would that be?”

She stared. Had Grandfather already forgotten about last year and Teacher Li? “We have to write about ancestors, not just one person. I don’t want to break the rules.” It would create excuses to pick on her.

Grandfather gazed into his cup. “I first met her when I was visiting friends on the moon, bringing me close enough to Beijing for a video chat. Your parents had already been together for six months. I’d never seen your Baba so happy.”

“What did you learn about Mama?” Yide’s fingers twitched, yearning for a pencil.

“She grew up in America, but studied Mandarin from a young age. By the time she was in high school, she could read a Chinese newspaper with ease.” Grandfather smiled at her. “Your Baba had an 84 in 100,000 chance of passing Qinghua University’s entrance exams. The standards for overseas students like your Mama is much higher, 2 in 100,000. You inherited intelligence from both of your parents.”

Yide stood up straighter, basking in the praise. “What did she say about her family?”

Grandfather paused. “I think her father’s family name is Li…fe…”He struggled to pronounce the “th” sound, nonexistent in Mandarin.

“Lithgow?” she offered. She’d been learning English and its “th” noises since kindergarten.

He nodded. “I preferred studying Asian languages in school. I’m out of practice with Western words.” He poured Yide another cup.  “Your Mama’s family was unusual in that they’re matrilineal.”

Yide’s heart leapt. “Do you remember their surname?”

“Le-ke something. I was more interested in learning about her paternal family.”

A thought tickled Yide’s mind. “Li.Le. Do you think ‘Li Anle’ is adapted from Mama’s Western name?”

“That sounds likely.”

Yide clutched her tea. “Grandfather Spider had changed his name, then Mama. Do you think it’s a family tradition, or did Mama want an easier name to say in Mandarin than “Lithgow?” Name changing sounded like separating from parents, something Yide had enough of.

Grandfather must have seen the look on her face.“As with your Baba, your Mama adored the stars from a young age,” he said, gentle. “She wanted to attend the best possible college for a related career and traveled from America to Qinghua University. Upon graduating, she moved to Di San Xing to further her dream. The only thing she loves more than space is you and Erde. Take a day off from your report to clear your head.”

In a perfect world, Yide would have come home, climbed into bed and curled around her doll. Together, she and Indigo would have found a way to stretch three pages into five.

Erde greeted her at the front door. “Have you eaten?” she said at a rapid-fire pace. “I saved you dinner. You’ve been looking miserable, so I bought…” She trailed off as Yide walked past her into their bedroom.

Yide pulled Indigo off her bed before booting her computer. Two heads were better than one, and Yide needed all the help she could get.

“There’s noodles in the kitchen.” Erde appeared in the doorway. “With yellow bean sauce and plenty of cloned pork. Shall I heat it up?”

As delicious as it sounded, Yide couldn’t afford distractions. “Leave me alone. I should finish the fourth page by tonight.”

For the next few days at school, Yide couldn’t think. She’d stay up at all hours expanding and was too tired to pay attention to lessons. Teacher Xun kept scolding her and threatening punishment if she didn’t behave better. If she stared long enough without blinking, Teacher Xun resembled Teacher Li.

Worse than the sleepiness was anticipation. It was still a few hours too early for Mama’s reply. If Mama answered in time. A too-short report would result in an incomplete grade, making Teacher Xun even angrier at her. Teacher Li would be right about her, that she was a waste of tuition. Baba and Mama would be working far away for nothing.

By the time school ended, Yide’s stomach was a roiling mess. She wanted to run home, but struggled with walking.

“Do you need help?” Erde asked.

“I’m fine,” Yide mumbled, looking away.

Erde studied her sister before saying, “Do you mind if I get home ahead of you? I’ll make us tea.” She sped down the path before Yide had a chance to respond.

Now was the time for haste, not tea breaks. With the due date in two days, Yide had to suppress her nerves and hurry to her desk.

When Yide opened the front door, something struck hard enough to override her unease. There were no footsteps, running water or other sounds of human activity. Erde was gone.

The floral note in the air must be a clue to her whereabouts. Yide followed her nose to the kitchen counter, where a pot of chrysanthemum tea sat steeping. Erde must have been in such a rush to brew tea, she forgot about dinner shopping. Erde probably hurried to the market upon realizing her mistake.

Yide took a deep breath in hopes of steadying her heart. With Erde gone and Grandmother still at work, she could check for Mama’s video in peace.

She still didn’t want to be alone. Yide settled Indigo on her lap before checking her mail. There was the message from Mama!

Yide shook herself. It was too soon to celebrate. She had to know if the video had what she needed. Her heart roared in her ears as she clicked Play.

Mama’s face appeared on screen. Her hair was disheveled, her eyes bore heavy shadows and her smile warmed Yide’s soul. “I got your message,” she said. “It sounds like the projects I had when I was in school, once in third grade and again in sixth.”

She bit her lip, appearing lost in thought. “Where to begin?” Mama said. “I was born Ann Lacroix Lithgow. One of my Chinese teachers shortened it to Li Anle, which I’ve used since attending college.”

Yide wasn’t sure if the heat in her belly was rage or indigestion. Why had Mama never mentioned her birth name before?

“I grew up with my mother’s family, the Lacroixes. My mother and grandmother lived in Philadelphia, though we had family in other American cities.” Mama looked away. “The Lacroixes love tradition. My grandmother, mother and aunts expected me to follow their footsteps and attend Jack and Jill, graduate from Spelman or Howard University, and join the Deltas.” She explained what those schools and organizations were. “If I wanted to pursue my love of science, I could become a dentist and join my aunts in Chicago. There was no room for astronomy in my family’s expectations.”

She fell silent again and kept her eyes down. Was she fooling with something in her lap, the way Yide played with Indigo?

Mama raised her head. “To prepare me for Spelman and Howard, they sent me to boarding school from age six onward. I saw them a few times a year and my dad even less.”

Yide hugged Indigo close. She didn’t like what Mama was getting at.

“I spoke with Dad over the phone more than anyone else, but visits were the best. He wanted me to do well in school, but to be myself, not another Lacroix.” Mama brightened. “I stayed with him one summer. He let me audit his classes and he brought me to the museum where Tear, Together hung. Dad told me the ideas behind the quilt. Everything was ripped like a Cherokee tear dress, with a Lucy Mingo/Pearlie Posey inspired design.” She beamed. “I was the biggest influence. Dad said he wanted to incorporate his two greatest loves, me and his work. He said I was so amazing people paid money to see my old clothes. That I was perfect as is and didn’t have to be a Lacroix if I didn’t want to.”

Yide’s skin prickled.

A mix of pride and nostalgia fell on Mama’s face. “Passing Qinghua University’s entrance exam was a long shot. Getting a score high enough to qualify for its Astronautical Engineering department was even less likely.” Her voice softened. “If it wasn’t for my Dad’s encouragement, I wouldn’t have taken the test. I never would have met your Baba, let alone had you and your sister.”

Yide rubbed her face. Her eyes were stinging again.

“I want to pass on to you and Erde what I had growing up. The independence and the best education possible.” She laughed. “Between the hours you’re home alone and the chores your Grandmother gives you, you’re halfway there. Give everyone my regards.”

The video ended.

Yide buried her face in Indigo’s hair. “I’m happy,” she said in monotone. “There’s more family to write about. Teacher Xun will praise my paper and…” She sniffled. “You’ll stay with me, won’t you?”

“Of course,” Erde said behind her.

Yide shrieked, falling from her chair. Erde leaned over, offering a hand.

“When did you get back?” Yide said.

“A minute ago,” Erdesaid. “Why are you crying?”

“I’m not—” Yide felt her cheeks. “It’s not important.”

Erde picked up Indigo and dusted her off. “Is my sister always this silly?” she asked the doll.

“Give her back!” Yide lunged for Indigo. “You already have Grandmother; don’t take Indigo too.”

“What?” Erde took a step back. “Did you hit your—” She noticed Yide’s computer screen, boasting Mama’s face from the end of the message.

Erde walked towards the image, leaning until she was nose-to-nose with the still. “What did you tell Yide?” she asked the picture. “That she can’t have your brains? Or travel the Earth and stars?”

“It’s hereditary,” Yide said. “Mama’s parents divorced and lived in different cities; Mama went to school far from home and we don’t see her now.” Her hands cramped into fists. “Mama says she wants us independent. It sounds like code for ‘alone forever.’”

She glanced at Erde before turning away. “I want to be with family. Even…” Sisterly pride prevented her from articulating.

Yide squeaked as Erde wrapped her in a hug. “If Mama didn’t love us, she wouldn’t send us videos,” Erde murmured. “If she wanted solitude, she wouldn’t be working side by side with Baba.” She tightened her embrace, creaking Yide’s ribs. “Grandfather and Grandmother are here with us, and—” Erde grinned. “I’ll always be around to fart on your pillows.”

Yide pulled away.

Erde used this time to slip out of the room and return with chrysanthemum tea. “Mind if I watch Mama’s letter with you?”

“You won’t like it,” Yide said as she pressed Play. She spent the next few minutes hanging on to every word of Mama’s six-day old recording. If Yide was going to leave her family, the least she could do is write a top-notch report before vanishing.

“I never knew that much about Grandfather Spider,” Erde said when the video finished. “That makes his quilt even sweeter.”

Yide stared, too stunned to speak.

“The one made from his and Mama’s clothes,” Erde spoke slowly with exaggerated mouth movement. “They were always together, even when they weren’t.”

“Is that why Mama lives so far from Earth?” Yide frowned. Erde must be acting dense on purpose.

“Grandfather Spider wanted her to be happy.” Judging from the look on Erde’s face, she believed Yide to be the dense twin. “Mama’s maternal family wanted her to be smart, and Mama is passing both qualities to us.”

As much as Yide wanted to argue, Erde’s statement had elements that might impress Teacher Xun. She moved towards her computer to close the letter and open her homework file.

“Don’t you dare!” Erde jumped between sister and screen. “There are more important things than school.”

“Not while there’s people like Teacher Li. Out of the way.” Yide assumed the most vicious face she could muster.

Erde folded her arms. “Teacher Li is a turtle’s egg…”

“Language!” Yide snapped.

“…for making you see bad things in Mama’s letter. You can’t write a good report if you can’t accept everything Mama said.”

Yide deflated. She didn’t want to admit she was wrong. Being a bad example by getting a poor grade was even worse.

She stood silent for a while, gathering courage. “Help me write?” she said. “I’ll do your chores—”

“No.” Erde looked disgusted. “It’s my Grandfather Spider and Mama too. I’m not helping because of favors, but because we’re family.”

Yide moved their chairs so they’d be sitting side by side before her computer.

“I’ll help you make the best report our school’s ever seen,” Erde said. “Teacher Li will faint.”


Emmalia Harrington (she/her) is a disabled QWOC with a BA in East Asian Studies. Her work can be found at FIYAH, Glittership and other venues. She is an Associate Editor at Podcastle and Acquiring Editor at FIYAH. She can be found on Twitter at @Emmalia_Writes

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