When I was eighteen, my father announced that he was going to remarry. My stepmother-to-be was beautiful and fashionable, with hair curled into ringlets and a collection of silk skirts embroidered with flower-patterns; her name was Alice Cheng before she became Alice Li. She liked to take my father by the arm and rest her head against his shoulder, looking up at him through her eyelashes with a breath too quiet to be a sigh. It made my stomach twist.
It was a beautiful wedding. Everyone said so, so it must have been a beautiful wedding.
"She's a witch," said my youngest brother, who was four years old and didn't know how to guard his tongue yet. The reception hall was busy and crowded with expensively dressed people, but even so, his voice carried. "She put a spell on him to make him forget Mama."
People were beginning to look, so I knelt to put my hands on my brother's cheeks and make him meet my eyes. "He's fallen in love with her, that's all," I told him. "Don't you want a mother to take care of you?"
"I have a mama," he insisted. "And Miss Cheng is a witch."
At first, you aren't surprised when the letters stop. It's finals season at your university, and you're caught up in papers and chemistry exams; back home, your six brothers must be engrossed in their own work. The eldest is surely preparing for the social studies fair, the way he does every year. The youngest is learning to add and subtract. Your father has agreed to let you spend winter break skiing with your friends, but you promise yourself that you'll take the train home for the Lunar New Year to surprise your family.
You return to California with your eyes still bright with the glare of the snow in the Cascades, and almost as soon as you're off the plane, you board the train for San Francisco. At the station, you buy chocolates and oranges for your brothers, and the smell keeps you company as the train sways home.
Near dusk, you arrive at the townhouse where your brothers were born. Immediately, you know that something is wrong. All of the lights are dim--all but the one in your father's bedroom.
Alice's bedroom, now.
You watch six birds sweep out through the shutters, and you know who they are.
Li Zongying will do all that is asked of her. She will be a good child, a good student; she will not go out at night, or speak in class, or laugh. Her friends will pity her, remembering the bright-eyed girl who sped down the slopes of the Cascades.
Then they will resent her. Finally, they will forget her.
She will take the place that her stepmother has prepared for her, wedded to a pleasant young businessman in Shenzhen, who speaks to her no more than she speaks to him. They will sit across the table from one another, she embroidering chrysanthemums on silk, he checking his text messages.
Zongying will eventually decide that he must have a mistress, or a boyfriend. Some other person to whom he can open his most secret self.
She will wish them well.
She will drive her needle through the silk until her fingers are touched with blood, and then she will package each skirt in tissue paper and put it away in a box. One day, she will mail all six from Shenzhen to San Francisco.
Zongying will not break her stepmother's spell, but with blood and thread, she will cast her own.