Featured July 12, 2019 Fantasy dark fantasy folklore urban fantasy

Unfilial Child

By Laurie Tom
Jul 8, 2019 · 3,986 words · 15 minutes

This picture was taken late in the day on my first full day in NYC. One of my life long dreams is to travel to China, so I felt like a visit to Chinatown might give me a tiny taste of what it might be like. It exceed my expectations in almost every way. This part of the trip reenforced desires to travel abroad, specifically Asia and China.

Photo by Wes Hicks via Unsplash.

From the editor:

June tries to be a dutiful granddaughter, always bringing gifts on her weekend visits (if not a husband or great-grandchildren). But when her grandmother takes in a mysterious infant, June learns her own childhood⁠—and her parents’ disappearance⁠—may not have been what it seemed.

Author Laurie Tom lives in Los Angeles, and her work has appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, IGMS, Crossed Genres, and many more.


From the author: June never got along with her grandmother. Despite that, she still wanted to be a dutiful grandchild. Every week she would visit her in Chinatown, but on her latest visit, her grandmother has a new addition to the household.


A-Nging answered the door, shuffling aside like an old hen to allow June inside. She was stooped with age that belied her dark hair and smooth face. But one only needed to look at A-Nging’s eyes to get a sense of the years she had seen. June did not like to meet them.

“I heard your neighbors saying something about a big bird,” said June, setting a pink box full of dim sum on the counter of her grandmother’s kitchen. “Did one of the eagles escape the zoo?”

She remembered the old lady with her arms spread wide to show its size, and could not imagine anything that large living in Chinatown. Sometimes seagulls flew in from the coast, drawn by food, but even the largest seagull wouldn’t have gotten that much notice. An eagle at least made for a better story, and the zoo was only a few miles away.

“If you had paid more attention learning Chinese as a child, you would know,” said A-Nging.

June had heard the word gui in the conversation, which she understood as “ghost,” but there were so many homonyms in Chinese that it was not hard to confuse one word for another without enough context. Context made the difference between talking about a horse, the ocean, or one’s mother.

“Nobody teaches Hoisan,” said June. “It’s the hick Chinese.”

A-Nging frowned and June pretended not to notice. She mostly remembered growing up and the other Chinese kids at her school declaring that she must not speak Chinese because she did not know Mandarin. She could not manage even basic words. The dialects were too different.

“Anyway, I thought you would be interested,” said June, “since you like birds so much.”

The apartment in the senior citizen center was not that large; only a single bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen barely big enough for two in stand inside. But what wall space her grandmother had chosen to decorate was covered with images of birds. She had a hanging scroll of cranes and a framed print of pheasants in the living room, and a painting of birds with the heads of women in the bedroom above her bed.

From the bedroom came an unusual cry; half laughter, half demand. A baby.

“I’m watching a granddaughter for one of the neighbors,” said A-Nging. “She must have just woken up. Go ahead and make yourself comfortable and I’ll be right back.”

June opened the refrigerator and put the pink box of dim sum inside that she knew A-Nging would never thank her for, but would eat anyway. At least she would have one less thing to complain about. June wasn’t the granddaughter who visited empty-handed.

She wondered how her dad had ever managed.

June could see his portrait at age eighteen, sitting on the shelf above the TV. The color was faded, and it was his graduation day. Kiang had been A-Nging’s only child. She had more pictures of him, but this was the one she was most proud of. It was also the most recent.

Though A-Nging had told her of her parents, June had never known them. Of her mother she had nothing at all, not even a photo. A-Nging had raised her and for as long as she could remember, A-Nging was the only family she’d known.

The baby uttered cranky cries, but they were low, and she could hear A-Nging coo to her in soft Chinese. June wondered if her grandmother was trying to find the next best thing in the absence of any younger grandchildren. She didn’t push June to get married, but it was impossible to ignore her stories about all the wonderful grandchildren her neighbors had.

June looked out the window to the street below. A-Nging had a good view of Broadway, the main thoroughfare through Chinatown, and there was the empty shell of a new building across the street. The architecture was sleek and modern. Not like the old Chinatown she had seen as a child, not like the Chinatown A-Nging had moved to when June decided she no longer wanted to live at home.

Chinatown should look Chinese, not like the latest development in downtown L.A.

The baby warbled and June noticed a large black feather on the window sill. It reminded her of when she and A-Nging had lived in a different apartment miles away in Gardena. As a child she would often find feathers in the yard by their apartment building. Black and white and very large. A-Nging would tell her that so much could be learned about a bird by the feathers it shed, whether it was a water bird, a songbird, or a hunting bird.

“She’s a good girl,” said A-Nging, returning to the living room. She had a baby in her arms that might have been six to eight months old. June was not good at guessing baby ages. Most of her friends were still single.

June smiled politely and waved at the girl. “Hello.”

The girl eyed her hand and then turned back to A-Nging. She twisted further and reached.

“Oh, I think she sees something she wants.” A-Nging laughed and June wondered if that was what it had been like when she was that age, when she was just a child with no expectations of her.

Good children grew up to be doctors and lawyers. They didn’t become case workers for the government, poking their noses into other people’s private business.

“I can come back another time,” said June.

A-Nging picked up a photo from the shelf and held it in front of the baby, who reached for it with an eager hand. “That’s your Auntie June,” said A-Nging. “Do you like that picture? Auntie June was only six years old then.”

June knew the picture. She had been stuffed into a frilly red dress she hadn’t liked and wore a dainty child’s purse she promptly lost the next time she had to wear it. Still, she was smiling. A-Nging had promised her ice cream if she was a good girl. It would have been just another photo of her as a kid, except that peeking out from inside the purse was a small plush owl.

For as much as her grandmother pushed her towards birds, the only ones she had liked were owls. She liked their faces, how they could turn their heads, their expressive ear tufts, but A-Nging found them disgusting. “Unfilial bird,” she said upon discovering June’s toy, and she told her an old tale of how the young owls devoured their parents in order fly.

June didn’t care. That plush owl had survived five attempts at being thrown out before her grandmother finally succeeded. And now it was forever immortalized as a tiny face peering out from a purse in a childhood photograph.

“It’s not too late for you,” said A-Nging.

And it took a moment before June realized her grandmother was speaking to her again.

“I don’t have a husband, much less a boyfriend yet,” said June. “I’m not getting pregnant any time soon.”

“Aren’t you always telling me how there are so many children you see at your work who need families?”

“Woah. Aren’t you the one that tells me I shouldn’t be prying into other people’s families?”

“If they want the kids you should not, but if they don’t...” A-Nging shrugged. “There are unwanted children in any country.”

“I... wasn’t really thinking of adopting.”

Truthfully, June hadn’t even thought of parenthood, figuring that she would work on the dating end of things first, and after that last blow-up with the guy from Finland she thought she might need a break from even that.

“I always thought of you as my daughter,” said A-Nging, setting the photo back on the shelf. “But I never understood why you only liked owls.”

#

When June was young Chinatown was a magic place where nearly everyone looked like her. It was where A-Nging would take her on Sundays to eat dim sum and she would gorge on egg tarts and steamed rice cakes. She could not speak Hoisan very well, but she knew enough to ask for an-pak and flut-gaw. And then if she was a good girl she would get a pack of flaky melon cakes to take home.

Now she just thought about what an incredible pain it was to come here with a car. She parked up on College Street to avoid having to pay for all day parking at one of the lots and walked down the steep hill to Broadway, carrying a bag of oranges with her. Oranges were lucky. They should be a good gift for a visit.

Chinatown’s heyday was decades ago. By the time June was born it was already in decline as the newer Chinese immigrants moved out to the San Gabriel Valley and the American born disappeared into the suburbs. June had tried getting A-Nging to move out to Alhambra near her, but she wouldn’t hear of it. A-Nging only spoke Hoisan, and the San Gabriel Valley was overwhelmingly Mandarin. At least in Chinatown many of its longtime inhabitants still spoke the tongue of the Four Counties.

So she stayed here, with other old Chinese, in an old Chinatown with signs that were as often as not bilingual with Vietnamese, a Chinatown where June now heard Spanish spoken by the people she passed on the crowded sidewalks. Vendors set racks of wares outside their stores and in the path of potential customers, forcing June to walk around them. There were still a few herbal shops and eateries with names like Queen’s Bakery and Lucky Deli, but so much of what she saw now was clothes. Not even Chinese clothes. How long ago had Chinatown become a swap meet?

The senior citizen apartments loomed up where Broadway intersected with Cesar Chavez Avenue. She could see the new complex rising up across the street; some mix of shops and residential apartments. It was probably part of someone’s revitalization effort, but it didn’t fit in with the older buildings down the street from the 30s and 40s. It was a world away from the herbal shops and darkened tearooms, the restaurants with faded paint and signage from a generation ago. She could already see the logo of the first coffee joint on the outside of the building, and it would not serve egg tarts for breakfast.

June signed in with the security guard in the lobby and took the elevator up to her grandmother’s. To her surprise, A-Nging greeted her at the door with the baby girl in her arms.

“Come in, come in,” said her grandmother.

“I brought oranges,” said June, lifting the bag so she could see before setting it on the kitchen counter.

A-Nging closed the door behind her and said, “That’s a good girl,” but June could not tell if she spoke to her or the child.

The baby looked healthy, staring at June while clutching a sippy cup between her hands.

“How much longer are you babysitting?” asked June. “I mean, a week is a long time for someone to be leaving their baby. Aren’t her parents worried?”

“I don’t see why they would be,” said A-Nging. “She is in good hands.”

June thought that if she had been one of the parents she would be, but she simply shrugged. Not her business, A-Nging would say.

“All right if I use the bathroom?”

She walked into the bedroom to go there and a stabbing pain burst in her temple. For a moment the room swam, covered in black and white feathers. She saw a cradle, surely for the baby, and vaguely remembered a different cradle from when she was too young for a bed. A bird with a human face perched on the rail, watching over her.

Then the pain was gone, and she only saw the painting of the human-headed birds above her grandmother’s bed. Tragic, A-Nging called them. They had died in childbirth before they could love children of their own.

The room smelled of incense and her grandmother had an old-fashioned robe lying on the bed, like one in those Chinese dramas she would watch. June had forgotten she had it. A-Nging had not worn it in years. June remembered that looking at it had made her dizzy when she was young, but now that she was older she could not understand why.

In the bathroom she finished her business, washed her hands, her face, and massaged her temples. The cold water felt good.

When she returned to the bedroom she noticed that A-Nging was still out in the living room. June pressed a hand to her forehead and peered at the robe. It was very fine, with a sheen that gave no clue that it must have been over forty years old; maybe even older if A-Nging had brought it with her from China. A-Nging had told June of how poor they were in Hoipeng, how even their tiny apartment in Los Angeles was better than going hungry. June didn’t understand how her grandmother could have owned such a thing.

“Did you want to try it on?” said A-Nging.

“No.”

Her answer slipped out a little too quickly, a contrary reaction that undermined every attempt she made to be a dutiful granddaughter. June could do the small things, like weekly visits and bringing gifts, but heaven forbid she do more. And she didn’t like dresses.

A-Nging sighed and the corners of her mouth turned down. “I suppose that is all then. You feel nothing from it?”

“It is pretty,” said June, though the apology sounded weak even to her.

A-Nging set the drowsing baby back in the cradle and tucked the blanket around her. June marveled at the girl’s disposition.

“Let’s have one of those oranges you brought,” said A-Nging. “You can tell me about work.”

They opened the window to air out the stuffiness brought on by the afternoon sun, and June sliced the oranges to set on a plate on the table between them. A-Nging asked her more questions about her job than she ever had before. How do foster families work? Who decides where a child is placed? Does it often happen that a child is taken away completely? June could not talk about her current cases, but she could talk about the process in general.

It was grueling work, and there was no question her office was understaffed, but she liked to think she was helping by doing it.

They each had an orange between them, and sixteen evenly sliced peels lay on the dish when they finished. A-Nging picked up the plate and said, “Thank you for talking to me.”

“I do try. Sometimes.” And for the first time in years June felt she had been a good granddaughter.

A-Nging nodded and walked to the kitchen.

June stood and reached for her purse, sitting on the arm of the sofa, when she saw the Chinese newspaper laid out on the small table for the lamp. It was open to what looked to be the classifieds. June couldn’t read it, but could see the photos of apartment buildings, and some of the phone numbers below them had been circled.

A-Nging? Are you moving?”

“Just thinking about it,” said her grandmother.

June didn’t understand why. Her grandmother had been so happy to move into the senior apartments here, where everything she needed was in walking distance. Were these other places also in Chinatown? Did she not like the new complex across the street?

A-Nging liked to eat at places like the old Phoenix Restaurant that had been around for decades. She would tell June of businesses past as though each one was another friend lost; places where families once came together, where weddings were held, places that had been the pride of Chinatown. So many of them gone.

June pulled away from the paper and noted the time on the wall clock. 5:00.

“I gotta go,” she said. “I’m meeting Heather for dinner.”

A-Nging nodded deeply. “Of course. Take care.” And she waved with an odd bit of finality.

“I’ll see you later,” said June, and she opened the door.

“You can leave it open,” said A-Nging. “I’m going to take the trash out in a minute.”

June walked down the hall towards the elevator and pressed the button, bothered by the nagging feeling that something was off. She wasn’t supposed to have brought something to the dinner, was she? The elevator door opened just as she realized what she was missing. She had left her purse.

June muttered angrily to herself and walked back to the apartment. The door was still open and she could see her purse lying on the arm of the sofa where she’d left it. She strode over to pick it up, and as she did she turned and saw right into the bedroom.

There was a large bird perched on the cradle, one gnarled foot gripping the rail and the other supporting a sippy cup against the baby’s mouth. Its feathers were black trimmed with white, and when its head turned to look at her it had her grandmother’s face.

The hunched figure hopped down from the cradle, legs flowing to the ground as they grew long and wings splaying into arms covered by an ageless silk robe. Her grandmother was no longer stooped. She stood as tall as June, her face still smooth, her hair dark, and her eyes black. Young, and yet older than anything she had seen.

“You had your chance,” said her grandmother. “Get out.”

“No.” The reply came quickly, automatic, before June even realized what she was saying or what she was saying it to. She held up her purse as if it could serve as a barrier between her and the apparition before her. “What’s going on? What are you?”

“A ghost, a spirit, a thieving aunt of a bird... I tried raising a child, one that no one wanted. I found Kiang, wandering lost on the streets of Chinatown. He was a good boy until providence took him away from me. And then I found you.”

Her grandmother took a step towards her, and June backed into the sofa. There was no room to run.

“Your parents left you in your stroller as they talked with another family in the park. You were crying and they did not hear you, but I did. I raised you when your blood parents did not show the interest. And yet you were a terrible nestling, never ready to fledge, unable to feel the call.”

June could see just past her, at the painting in A-Nging’s bedroom, of the women who had died and become birds.

Her grandmother followed her gaze and said, “When you were young I tried to tell you they were more than just stories. I am but one, and I collect the children unwatched by their parents, to raise in place of the one I lost. But there are so few Chinese children in Chinatown now.”

June shook, eyes turned towards the cradle, and lunged. Her grandmother reached out a hand to stop her, and June dove beneath it into the bedroom. She picked herself up and snatched the baby from the cradle. The girl cried. June was not kind.

“Unfilial child,” said the thing that had been her grandmother. Her body sucked in on itself, becoming a bird, with thick, cruel talons and the face of a woman filled with rage. “You yourself work to move unwanted children to a better home. Do you think that I never loved you, that did I not care? I waited almost thirty years for you to fledge!”

The spirit bird dove, talons stretched wide. June grabbed the pillow from her grandmother’s bed and swept it between them; pushing, shoving. Something sharp raked her arm and with a final thrust she charged back through the doorway to the living room.

The bird swept out behind her, wingspan as large as a man, its human head dwindling behind a swirl of feathers into the hooked beak of a massive eagle.

“You will leave my baby! She will fly when she comes of age!”

“She has parents!” June shouted. “You don’t know that they abandoned her! My parents, I don’t know that they abandoned me either...”

June opened the door to the broom closet, putting another barrier between her and the eagle. She needed to get away, but if she ran into the hall, the bird would have a long, clear corridor in which to chase her. In the apartment, where it was crowded, and tiny, her wings would not carry her as far or as fast.

Ignoring the baby’s cries she set her on a shelf in the closet and grabbed a broom. The bird skated around the door, but June was ready and batted it away, back into the living room.

“What was all this for?” demanded June. “You wanted to raise a bird child?”

“Each generation procreates to make the next, but I can do no such thing. I can only make another in my image, by feeding her the right foods, the right herbs, so that when she grows she will hear the call.”

June ducked as the eagle swooped over her head and crashed into the venetian blinds by the window. The bird squirmed, trying to untangle itself, beak and talons ripping at the cords. June raised the broom.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she rammed the end of the broom into the eagle hard enough that the screen popped out on the other side and the bird tumbled out the window with a cry.

June dropped the broom and ran back for the baby. She did not think such a thing would kill a bird woman who claimed to be a spirit, but the fall and the blinds would buy her some time. The baby wailed as she picked her up. June tried to mumble something reassuring to her, but her own heart was beating so fast it made no difference what she said. She fled down the hall and for the elevator.

There was a security guard downstairs, and other residents would be in the lounge. Surely her grandmother would not attack in front of so many, not when she had hidden herself all this time.

Her grandmother... her kidnapper.

June thought of the photo of herself as a little girl in the red dress and cried.

#

Months later, she came back to the apartment. Management asked her to clear out her grandmother’s belongings. A-Nging had been missing ever since that day.

June packed up everything; the furniture, the tableware, the photos; photos of the man who was not her father but the child before her, and the photos of herself as a child. In A-Nging’s room she filled a box with her clothes to donate to charity, and in a chest she found a silken robe that sang to her as she drew it out. It was white trimmed with brown, of the same sheen as her grandmother’s.

She draped it over herself and felt her head spin. When she looked in the mirror she could see her face on the head of a bird with wide eyes that could see in the dark and tufts of feathers that resembled ears.

Unfilial bird, her grandmother would say.

But A-Nging had not deserved that devotion. June could feel the mix of knowledge rising in her, which foods to feed a child, which herbs must be mixed with broth, how to sew the robes that would enable them to fly. She would be more careful than A-Nging. She knew how to find unwanted children better, those who could be raised without being stolen, those who perhaps, would want to become birds.

This story originally appeared in Streets of Shadows.


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Laurie Tom

Laurie Tom is a Chinese American author living in southern California. She likes books, video games, and anime.