Dear Gūmā

/ Ivy Du

Fiction9 min reading time

Dear gūmā,

As a child, I read a book about a girl named Chrysanthemum, and my English teacher told me that chrysanthemums were auguries of death; the closer you were to that finality, the more appeared around you. She told me that that was why there were so many at people’s funerals. The flowers had a mind of their own, an instinct for finding the fallen— weaving their way through the tile cracks of funeral halls, sifting through the air until they landed in porcelain vases and the hands of crying people.

I used to think the last thing I’d want is for the dead to reach in my direction. But I miss your stories about the ghosts in your city. You told me that they look like smoke, and that you always wanted to grow flowers in your apartment, but your windows didn’t let in enough light between their metal bars. If you grew them in plastic containers outside on the balcony, the ghosts in the gray air would come to sweep them away in a chasm of ash, to fly them over the neighborhood and deposit them in the countryside, where dead things are laid to rest. You told me it wasn’t wise to leave flowers outside, because the sky was so smoke-choked they'd die on the spot, paving the way for a legacy of ghosts that would loiter on the balconies and rattle the steel cages of windows. It was like feeding ducks; leave one plant for them to kill, and then they never stop coming. Better to let them fly anyways; it was cruel to tie them down to the earth, you said.

The maddest you’ve ever been at me— do you remember it? When XiǎoYuè and I lit the leaves you wrapped our zòngzì in with your lighter in the bathroom, to try and see if we could summon spirits by turning green to gray, if we could collect spectral forms in your shower and keep them as our friends. And after a while of wondering why we were being so silent, you saw the ghost creep out from under the crack of the sliding door. You screamed for us to put out the orange-yellow-hued interstice between our world and what comes after, whose hunger left leaves as ash. You didn’t see this because you were locked outside, but the ghost halted when it touched water; the body suddenly stiffened, unwavering, a sepulchral pencil-line that smashed against the ceiling.

You were too busy invoking words so foul I didn’t even understand them, complaining about how we were one day going to make you down a whole bottle of your medication. Warning us that summoning was dangerous; even the childish rituals that we giggled while performing. That reawakening the undead, the unresolved, would choke the oxygen out of our young lungs. We would burn the present into the ground, and have to live forever in the fire, beside everything we couldn’t let go of. You said that was why you divorced your ex-husband: because he kept smoking on the balcony even though you told him to quit, kept conjuring up those ghost-shapes that scared you out of sleep, taunting them back nightly. You told me that even when the three of you lived together, he never spoke to you or XiǎoYuè after he stalked back from ambiguously-cataloged days of work; he had a voice smeared with cigarettes, from smoking so much the ashen chemtrails of his sound darkened even the night. It’s funny how you thought I was ready to learn about ghosts, but not air pollution, not the fact that you left him because you discovered he was cheating. Yes, XiǎoYuè did tell me a month before your funeral, but please don’t think of it as her trying to embarrass you.

I miss when you used to take me on long drives, and tell me you didn’t want an ending place, just somewhere to leave. Some country that was easy to abandon, because death clogged the sky and the sun was the size of a god’s peephole through the door of smog. I remember us maneuvering our way out of the city and into the country roads, when your old Kia would inevitably start sputtering, or its loose driver-side mirror would fall off, and we’d stop and you’d turn to me and say that you didn’t need a destination, a closure, but you still wanted to drive over to his place to demand the child support money he never paid on time. You said that his house wasn’t actually our terminus— you told me to imagine it as a dream we were having while we were flying, still midair on an eternal arc where the journey itself was enough.

When we’d re-enter the city and the scent of smolder would percolate into the car, I always wondered if you smelled the ghosts or him, blowing smog out of his throat and misting the world outside your windows. I wonder if the two ever spiraled together, until every pencil-line of smoke barred similar memories of similar dead things. But I don’t think that men who cheat, men who lock themselves in their apartments with their newer, wealthier families, who call neighborhood police whenever you let them know you’re there for money that’s long overdue, will ever become ghosts that roam the sky. When they die, their spirits will brace themselves wherever they’re buried, barricaded in the same plot of land that will one day hold the rest of their new families.

Speaking of funerals, I’m sorry for yours, the way it started as a text of disparate flower languages. There had been a mishap. XiǎoYuè ordered carnations and my father ordered chrysanthemums. The latter had been on the tip of my tongue, but I told her not to buy them because I assumed they would arrive regardless. Though they were invited this time, they coiled their stems together like a rat king and began growing all over, looping around our chandeliers, drowning out the carnations, raining their endless petals on the funeral-goers, avalanching over your casket. So I’m sorry no one was able to look into your casket and see you that day. Your image had been flooded over with flower.

To answer the question you asked me a while back: no. The air quality is not much better in America, at least not in the part where I live. It was a day the weather forecast labeled “clear,” in which the bottom half of the sky was cement-colored and the hills were hazed over with a layer of low opacity gray, when I asked my father why he bought so many chrysanthemums, even though they grew towards death like pests. He told me you always said that if you could’ve raised any flower, it would’ve been the chrysanthemum. That they were used for funerals, but symbolized vitality in your country, in their manifold layers and bursting patterns. That they grew in the cold, heralding perseverance. He told me that there was no universal flower language; that flowers meant whatever we read in their beauty, whatever we wrote about their willingness to bloom when others wilted. I’m sure you’d appreciate it, then. I’m sure you would’ve asked me to close my eyes as I looked down at your casket either way, so you’d never have a final resting place. So I’d imagine your life only as a star-trail, in an endless arch over the sky, forever at your proudest, most beautiful moment.

I keep a chrysanthemum on my desk. And this may upset you, but I also burn a candle whenever I write to the dead— in case you still have any regrets, in case you summon yourself from the smoke to claim my letters. If I one day see you, I hope you carry the chrysanthemum and fly out of my window; that you find freedom in sailing across the countryside of a nation you’ve never been to before. I remember you used to tell me that I should grow up and get rich, so I could buy you a ticket to Hollywood, a mansion in LA, a starring role in the movies; maybe you can fly over the Hollywood sign, and finally see that it’s smaller than you expected.

I wonder which flower language scripts out where each chrysanthemum blooms over you while you’re in the sky— over your eye bags, your knuckles, the mouth you use more for swearing than making normal conversation. I’m sorry. When I remember you, it’s there, in your shadow: how you looked the last time I ever saw you, your knuckles purple, your fingers crushed into your hair, groaning about how you’d survive the next few months without the money. But I still imagine flowers swarming this image— braiding themselves between your fingers and silvering strands, they frame the arc of your cheeks like fine art. I still think about how chrysanthemums bloom amidst perseverance, how beauty survives in the most harrowing places.

I hope you one day find a place to plant yourself in peace. I keep looking at the sky these days, and the air pollution worsens every time. Seems like many ambitions, many past people haunt our skies— like the sky in every country is the same, our smog the same trail of spirits sprinting like shooting stars, trying to crashland in a place they can call home.

With love still,
Your zhínû

(I forgot the word for niece until XiǎoYuè reminded me what it was. It’s been a while, and I’m no one else’s zhínû anymore; if I don’t memorialize it, brandish it here, I’m scared the word might detach from me and follow you into the night.)