Learning Her Truth
Feng Jie sat on a bench in the stuffy room, surrounded by stacks of boxes. Big windows covered one wall, allowing glimpses of the stars in the night sky. That view kept the room from becoming too closed in.
She was in the attic of their home, a space they used for storing all things too important to discard. Her hands moved over the precious things she had pulled out from the boxes near her, the things that she had so carefully packed away at a different time in her life. Sometimes years would go by when nothing would need to be packed away. Sometimes, happiness would come; she would get the chance to unpack.
“Feng Jie! What are you doing up here?” Zihan demanded, stomping into the room. “It’s so late. Aren’t you tired? Ba and Ge are still downstairs, recovering from the soup you made. Where do you even get the energy?”
Feng Jie quickly stuffed the items in her hands back in the box and turned to gaze at her daughter. She smiled, seeing how confidently her daughter moved into the room and plopped down beside her.
Zihan, along with Zifeng, were her entire heart. Seeing her exuberance, undimmed by the trials they had all gone through over the past decade, made her happy on a soul-deep level. Zihan had been the reason that she had been able to smile after losing her husband. And Zifeng was the reason she had stayed alive. Those two had kept her going when she had lost her light. Seeing the frown on her face, she wondered what new thing had gotten her daughter down today.
Zihan didn’t notice her mother’s preoccupation, her eyes flickering over the boxes piled up high around the room and then coming back to glare at her mother. “You know how I hate being in here. It’s full of dust. I feel like I’m going to suffocate. And you . . . you’re always so sad afterwards.”
Her mother laughed, grabbing Zihan’s hand and lacing her fingers through her daughter’s. Zihan slumped over, her head coming to rest on her mother’s shoulder.
“And why are you in such a bad mood?” Feng Jie asked, having seen the unhappiness writ across her daughter’s face.
“That stupid Guangchao!” Zihan complained, pouting furiously. “He left and hasn’t called me once. What is wrong with him?”
“Didn’t you tell me that you said some not so nice things to him at the office/” Feng Jie prompted softly. “Maybe his feelings were hurt.”
“His feelings are never hurt!” Zihan protested. “His head is too thick.”
“He was hurt, Zihan,” Feng Jie asserted. “Otherwise, would he have remained silent for so long?”
“I’ll talk to him when he shows up for work,” Zihan said in a disgruntled tone.
The two sat in silent contemplation, but her awareness of where they were was too much for Zihan. She sighed heavily, glaring at the boxes once more. “Why are you in here, Feng Jie? It’s such a gloomy, sad room. That last time you were so sad. I know you dislike being in here.”
“Why would I dislike this room?” Feng Jie asked, running a loving hand over Zihan’s hair.
“It’s dusty and musty,” Zihan complained, holding her nose closed. She sneezed, despite her efforts to keep the dust out.
“This room is filled with boxes, and each and every box is filled with pieces of our past. Those boxes,” Feng Jie noted, pointing across the room, “Were the boxes I packed with your father’s belongings three years after he went missing. I hadn’t given up hope, or I would have thrown them away. But even so, I needed to do something. The colors were fading. Dust was covering their shine. I had to carefully pack them away to protect them.” Tears sprang up in her eyes, remembering the pain they had all gone through when he’d gone missing.
“Ma! See! You’re crying! Again,” Zihan protested, hugging her mother close. “It doesn’t matter what’s in here. It makes you sad.”
“I came in here to unpack your father’s clothes. He asked for his favorite sweater all of a sudden,” Feng Jie admitted, staring down at the clothes in her hands. “That’s a good thing, Zihan. Just because these things make me emotional, doesn’t mean that I should avoid them.”
“But these aren’t . . .,” Zihan began in protest, reaching into a nearby box.
“I know,” Feng Jie murmured, staring down at the baby clothes she held once more in her hands. They were Zihan’s baby clothes. She’d kept them, as generations of mothers had before with their own children’s clothes, so that they could use them for the coming generations. Staring at the tiny onesies and little dresses, she sighed heavily.
“What is it, Ma?” Zihan asked, getting serious. She knew that something was really hurting her mother, and unless Zihan prodded, Feng Jie wouldn’t speak. In all those lonely years without their father, she hadn’t wanted to burden her children. Mothers always wanted to protect their chidlren. Ma just didn’t realize that they no longer needed to be protected.
“It’s Zifeng,” Feng Ji finally uttered, surprising Zihan, who had given up hope that her mother would say anything.
“Ge?” Zihan asked hesitantly.
“These baby clothes just started me thinking.” She stopped talking for a moment.
“What is it Ma?” Zihan asked.
“He was so young when he came to live with us,” her mother said. “But I would say not young enough. He had already learned about the cruelties of the world. He had already learned what it meant to be abandoned by those who should love you the most.”
“Ma,” Zihan began, surprised to hear this.
“When he came to live with us, you were so young, so you don’t remember. He was so well-behaved. Such a good little boy. So respectful. So careful. He was the perfect son,” Feng Jie murmured, reaching into another box and pulling out an action figure. Zihan knew it was her brother’s. If it had been her toy, it would’ve been broken and thrown away years ago.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Zihan asked in confusion, “That he was so good? At least he wasn’t a little ‘devil’ like me,” she said dryly, causing her mother to smile.
But the smile soon fell away. Feng Jie shook her head. “He was so afraid,” she murmured. “He was afraid that we would return him if he acted out or made mistakes. He was afraid that we would reject him if he wasn’t perfect. Because he hadn’t accepted us as his. Even when we were supposed to be together, he would go off on his own and spend hours in solitude.” She stopped, wiping tears from her eyes. “Even though from almost the first second your father had the thought of taking him home, I had accepted him as mine.”
“Ma,” Zihan began, “What are you worrying about? He has accepted us now. We are his family.”
Feng Jie shook her head, running a hand over the toy figure. “Your brother is so responsible; he carries the burdens of this family without any complaint. When your father disappeared, Zifeng didn’t mourn. He didn’t break. He took charge and took care of everything. He took care of me, so that I could function. He took care of you, so that you wouldn’t go off the rails. He took care of the business, so that he wouldn’t let the triad members down. It’s my turn to be afraid. And do you know what I fear?”
Zihan silently shook her head.
“Sometimes I am so afraid that he never grew out of the need to be necessary to us so that we wouldn’t throw him away. And when there is fear on either side, how can there be unhesitating acceptance?” Feng Jie blurted out.
Zihan’s heart clenched at that revelation. That couldn’t be true, could it? He was her brother. Ever since she could remember, Ge had been there, taking care of her, doting on her, loving her. He was hers. She had just never thought that he wouldn’t think of her as his. “Ma,” she began hesitantly.
“Zifeng doesn’t say much,” Feng Jie continued. “He does the right thing. He does it without complaining, but when he reaches his limit, he implodes. I’ve only ever seen him do that once.”
“Ma, he tends to explode now,” Zihan pointed out wryly. At her mother’s continued silence, Zihan raised an eyebrow in silent question.
“It was about a year after he came to live with us,” Feng Jie continued, staring down at another of Zifeng’s toy figurines. “Your father was watching the news and there was an item on abandoned children. They even did a segment on the parents and showed them justifying their abandonment of those poor children. Zifeng was sitting next to him, and he just froze. He sat there silently, just watching the entire segment. Once it ended, he fled the room. We finally found him hours later; he was sitting in the darkest corner of the house. When I asked him to please come out, he didn’t move for what felt like hours. I stayed there with him, hoping that he would trust me enough to . . . just speak.”
Zihan put an arm around her mother’s shoulders, trying to give what comfort she could.
“He finally spoke. He told me that he wasn’t like that, and he would prove it. His voice was so blank, as if there was no emotion left inside of him. He said when he grew up, he would have lots of children. His own children. His own blood. And he would never abandon them. He would love them. Cherish them. Teach them the right values. He looked at me, and told me that he wouldn’t be like his parents.” Her fingers clenched around Zihan, seeking comfort. “He was 11, and he needed his own family.”
“Ma, come on,” Zihan protested. “Is that what this is about? Of course Ge thinks of us as his family. And he ca-”
“Yanuo is the perfect match for him,” Feng Jie murmured disjointedly. “He is the partner that my son needs. He is the man my son loves, and Yanuo has become a part of this family. I wouldn’t trade him for the world. But . . . they won’t have any children of their own. I am so afraid that this reality will hurt Zifeng more than he would ever let on. He’s going to have to let go of that need.”
Zihan tried to find the right words. “Ma,” she finally said, “Whenever we make a choice in life, that means we’re rejecting something else. In attaining one dream, we have to let go of another. Not everyone is so lucky to have all they want.”
“I want my Zifeng to have everything,” her mother uttered, but it was a plea without hope. “I want him to have a family that he can truly call his own. I want him to have a family that he would trust not to leave him.”
“He only wants Yanuo,” Zihan proclaimed. “You’re being irrational, Feng Jie. He was only 11 years old. I’m sure Ge doesn’t think that way anymore.”
Feng Jie nodded, beginning to pack away the toys and infant clothes. “I know,” she said morosely, “I know this doesn’t make any sense. I wasn’t even thinking this way, but then I came up here. These boxes fell over, and your old baby clothes came tumbling out. Seeing those clothes, your old toys, I remembered his vow. When he was 11 years old, he needed to prove that he wasn’t like his parents . . . that he would never abandon his own blood.” Her voice grew more desperate. “But he’s not going to ha-,” she stopped, her voice breaking.
The two women jumped and turned to look at the door, their eyes wide.
“Zifeng,” Feng Jie murmured, her stricken gaze focused on her son’s face. How much had he heard? She quickly shut the box lid, hoping that he had seen nothing. She wanted nothing to mar his happiness.
Zifeng walked over and knelt at her feet, grabbing her hands and stilling her frantic activity. “Ma,” he repeated, understanding in his eyes.
Her shoulders slumped. He had heard everything. “I am happy for you,” she murmured, reaching out a hand to cup his cheek. “You are my most precious son, and I only ever wanted you to be happy. I wanted you to find the place where you belong.”
“I have, Ma,” he replied, reaching up to cradle her hand in his. “I belong here . . . with my family.”
“But,” she began and then stopped, biting her lip.
“I am responsible. I do want to take care of all of you.” He smiled. It was his special Zifeng smile. “But it’s not because I’m afraid you’ll reject me if I’m not good enough,” he continued. “You are my family.”
She tilted her head, making a silent plea for reassurance.
“You are in my heart. I have accepted you. I am so sorry that you would ever feel that I haven’t accepted you . . . all of you into my heart. My family and Yanuo are all I need.”
She smiled, tears falling from her eyes once more. Only now, they were tears of joy.
“And Ma, you don’t have to worry about the other thing, either. We’ll have children. Yanuo and I will have many children,” he continued with an irrepressible smile.
Feng Jie nodded. “Of course you will. Of course. You’ll adopt. You will create your own family, the way we did with you.”
He laughed softly, a joyful glow appearing in his eyes. “Yes. We’ll adopt. There are children out there that need us.” He nodded emphatically. “But Yanuo and I will also have children together.”
“What are you saying?” Feng Jie asked, a confused look crossing her face. “How is that even possible? Zifeng . . .” Strange thoughts were flitting through her mind, and she was too confused to give voice to any of them.
“Pi Yanuo is a woman,” he said, after taking a deep breath.
Feng Jie’s mouth opened and closed for a minute before she could eke out a hoarse, “What?” She saw the uncertainty in his eyes, the small flashes of panic. She reached out and grabbed his hand.
“This is the first time I’m saying this out loud to anyone,” he said, clearing his throat of the trace of hoarseness that had entered it. “Yanuo is a woman,” he repeated. “She was born a female, but has spent the past 25 years as a male for some reason that I haven’t quite figured out yet. She’ll tell me when she’s ready.”
“Wait. She hasn’t told you anything, then how do you know?” Feng Jie asked, staring at him in surprise.
“I overheard. Right place, right time, I guess,” he explained, shifting uncomfortably. “I also know that she’s going to tell me soon . . . tomorrow, I think, about the whys. Ma.”
“Hmm?” she asked, gazing at his happy face.
“I’m going to propose to her,” he revealed. “Will you be there, by my side?”
She nodded happily, a smile growing across her face. “Yanuo. A girl,” Feng Jie murmured, staring down at their linked hands. She shook her head, a perplexed expression on her face. “I can’t quite imagine it,” she murmured, her hands clutching at his.
“I would think you’d find it very easy to imagine her as a woman,” Zifeng said, settling at her feet and leaning against her legs.
“What do you mean?” she asked, patting his head. If he was okay with this revelation, then she would be okay with it, too.
He looked up at her and smiled cheekily. “You met her as a woman.”
His mother’s mouth fell open in shock.
“Yeah,” Zifeng said, trying to suppress a smile. “It took me a while to connect those dots and realize there was no twin, just Yanuo. Quite a bit longer than I really care to admit,” he disclosed with a shrug.
“Yaqi was actually Yanuo,” Feng Jie murmured wonderingly. She paused. “And I was throwing Yaqi at you in front of Yanuo!” She shook her head in embarrassment. “Whatever the reason,” she finally said, “I don’t care.” She patted his cheek once more. “You’re happy and dreaming of a future. That’s all that matters. My son . . .”
He nodded, smiling at her.
“My son will live happily ever after,” she said, a huge smile crossing her face.
“Ma,” Zihan said in a soft voice, tugging at her mother’s arm from the other side.
Feng Jie jumped, having forgotten that her daughter was even in the room. “What is it?” she asked, turning to look at her.
“Ma, I was in love with Pi Yanuo for the longest time. I pursued . . . her so aggressively,” Zihan said with a blush. Her hands came up to cover her flushed cheeks. “What does that say about me?”