/ Ashley Hirao (Writer), Elysia Mac (Illustrator)
Fiction — 10 min reading time
A hand reaching. The scent of smoke—a fire nearby? There is an underlying sense of urgency, but for what, Sage could not be sure. All she knew was that she had to touch it, and if she did, everything would be okay.
It was always like this; a supercut of moments that slipped through her fingers before she had a chance to grasp them, intangible emotions that drifted out of reach, here then gone. Afterwards nothing but the memory remained, sometimes not even that.
She awoke with the smoke still burning in her nostrils, her fingertips tingling with the ghost of a touch.
It was dark in the plane cabin, the simulated nighttime having not yet worn off. Sage reached over and cracked the window open. A sliver of light pierced the darkness, making her wince.
She laid back in her seat and tried again to drift off to sleep. Her body ached from sitting. When she fell asleep again she did not dream.
Sage awoke to a jolt as the plane made contact with the Earth. She listened as the pilot made his announcement, first in English then in Mandarin.
She had not been to Taiwan in almost ten years, positive that she had changed more than the city could have in that time. During her last trip she had been 12, it was summer, and it was horrible. Her mother had spent the entirety toting her around from sunup to sun down, visiting relatives whose names she could not remember, and snapping photos in the stifling humidity. Now she was alone, it was the tail end of winter, and she felt like the city could be hers if she wanted.
But the pilgrimage must have a destination, and Sage was not sure what would be waiting for her at the end—salvation, if she was lucky.
The taxi ride was silent, because she was not confident enough in her Mandarin to start a conversation. Instead Sage gazed out the window, eyes fixed on the landscape passing by. There was comfort to be found in a foreign city, potential buzzing around every corner and under every streetlight. She felt a sense of homecoming, although perhaps misplaced and appropriated. Taiwan was not her home, but maybe a primal part of her could sense its familiarity, and nestled into it like a pair of worn-in shoes.
When the taxi pulled up to the station Sage was still an hour early for her train. She thanked the cab driver, and grabbed her luggage and carry-on. As she navigated the station she felt that all crowds were the same. Back home in Los Angeles no one spared her a second glance, and here they did the same. When the crowd spoke it was not in any one language, but an amalgamation of sound and movement. Sage took her camera from her carry-on, and snapped a quick photo of the crowd, figures blurring and merging as they pushed past.
She found a quiet spot to wait for her train next to a woman and her baby. The baby was squirming and babbling, falling silent only when his large eyes fixed on Sage. She and the mother exchanged amused glances over his head.
“So cute,” Sage said in Mandarin, and hoped her accent was well hidden.
“Xie xie,” the woman responded, and asked if she was American.
Sage smiled, taking a moment to phrase her Chinese, “How did you know?”
The woman shrugged, “It’s easy to tell.”
After a moment of hesitation, Sage turned back to the woman and asked slowly, “Can I—?” and gestured snapping a photo with her camera. The woman seemed to understand, and nodded enthusiastically, to Sage’s surprise.
Sage stood up and walked across the aisle, positioning her camera for a moment or two before pressing the button. She studied the result for a moment.
In the image, the woman sat with her face turned away from the camera, searching for something just out of frame. Her baby was perched in her lap, eyes locked with the lens as if he had seen something his mother had not.
To save money Sage was staying with her grandmother. Technically, it was her cousin’s house, and her grandmother had only moved in after her grandfather passed five years ago, but in those five years she had all but commandeered the household in her boredom.
Her cousin Rose was a busy woman, and she was not there when the taxi arrived from the train station to her house. Sage’s grandmother greeted her at the front door. Four years had passed since her grandmother had last visited her in Los Angeles. Sage was pleased to see that she looked well, almost identical to last time. She had given up on dyeing her hair, letting the natural grey show through.
When they hugged, her grandmother’s arms were strong around her.
“_Jin lai, jin lai,” _she urged Sage. Together they moved her things to the second-floor guestroom.
They did not speak much, beyond the initial greetings. Her grandmother spoke little English, and although Sage could understand her Chinese, she could not replicate it. She wished there was more to say, and that she had the words to say it. Sage felt like she owed it to her after so long apart.
The first night, Sage dreamt of fire again.
In her dreams, the world was warped. Things looked different as they were in reality, and yet Sage could recognize them not by appearance but by feeling alone.
The flames licked. Sparks jumped. Sage reached out to touch the fire, because it looked so beautiful. Somehow she knew, with an unwavering certainty, that it would not hurt her. She understood that fire was not destructive by nature—it did not wish to burn, only to warm; not to extinguish life, but to create. She felt a great sadness in that moment, a deep empathy for something so misunderstood.
A spark landed on her outstretched palm. Sage ached for the burn, yearned to feel its touch. She was close this time, felt the warmth from the flames lick at her fingertips. Her fingers curled, closing around something at last.
Sage’s eyes flew open. The world was still dark around her, but she felt warm, comforted, even in the alien surroundings.
She could not find her way back to sleep after waking. When the birds began to chirp, Sage rose from bed, her hunger driving her to the kitchen. To her surprise, her grandmother was already awake, slicing mangoes at the table and placing the chunks of fruit into a large bowl. Sage watched for a moment, hypnotized by the smooth glide of the knife, the way the skin peeled back in one swift motion, the deft way her grandmother cut into the glistening flesh.
She looked up at the sound of Sage’s footsteps, “Zhao.”
“Zhao,” she responded, with hesitation. She and her grandmother were not close. They had been when she was a child, when language was a construct not yet assembled, and love was nearly an automatic thing. But despite their time apart, a lingering warmth always remained. For a second she felt young again—the two of them preserved in this moment, somewhere beyond age and time.
“Why did you come back to Taiwan?” her grandmother asked as Sage took a seat at the table. She spoke slowly, enunciating each word carefully so that it would not go over Sage’s head.
Sage speared a chunk of mango on her toothpick, and placed it carefully on her tongue. The reason, on a practical level, was that she needed inspiration, and travel was the easiest cure for an artist when creativity ran dry. But truthfully, it did not matter where she went. It could have been Taiwan, or Iceland, or any place that was not LA. Some days she felt as if she were being eroded, slowly eaten away by that city until something unrecognizable remained. The truth was, she was afraid of the person who would emerge on the other side.
So she escaped. Taiwan was her best bet. Here no one would care about the small things that ruled her old life. Here were her roots, supposedly. She had expected nothing short of a transformation, a phoenix rising from the ashes. But she did not tell her grandmother any of this.
Instead she said, with great difficulty, “I keep having dreams.”
Her grandmother raised her eyebrows, “Dreams?”
Sage nodded, emboldened, “I see a lot of fire.”
Her grandmother began to laugh. Sage was silent, relieved and offended at once. Her grandmother sighed, and covered Sage’s hand with hers, “When I was younger, I was a lot like you.”
Sage smiled halfheartedly, as her grandmother rose and began to rummage through her cabinets. She returned to the table with a dark tinted glass bottle. Sage squinted at the Chinese characters, not recognizing any.
“Mix a spoonful of this with hot water, and drink it before bed,” her grandmother said. “Then, you will sleep well.”
Sage stared at the bottle for a moment before taking it into her hands.
That night Sage went to the night market.
Light and sound and movement and scent became a living thing under the watchful eye of the moon. Stalls lined the street, each its own individual world vying for her attention. She joined the slow procession of people moving down the street, the warm nighttime air melding with the scent of food. Sage was positive there was no equivalent of the night market to be found in America. Back there everything felt too polished, too manufactured, too set up in a way that begged you to make a purchase. Sage paused in front of a stinky tofu vendor, snapping a quick photo before ordering one for herself.
Later, Sage had come home and began to edit the photos from earlier. None of them looked quite right. They did not strike her at first glance, the way they were supposed to. In her frustration she suddenly remembered the bottle perched on her night stand. She thought about sending a photo to her mom, asking what the concoction was, but decided against it. Her grandmother had given it to her, and her grandmother would never hurt her.
Sage did as she was instructed. First she heated water in a kettle, then poured it into a mug and stirred in a spoonful of the bottle’s contents, something thick, brown, syrupy. She raised the mug to her lips, inhaling its sweet scent. The liquid slid down her throat, warming its way down to her insides. It left a minty aftertaste, somehow simultaneously hot and cold. Sage downed the entire cup.
She did not dream of fire that night. She did not dream of anything, really. Several more nights passed in the same fashion, until Sage began to miss the burning.