Lania Knight's first novel Three Cubic Feet was a Finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in Debut Fiction. Her second book Remnant is a dystopian speculative fiction novel set 100+ years in the future in the American Midwest. Her short stories, essays and poems can be found in print and online. She currently lives in the UK and lectures in Creative Writing. Read more about her at www.laniaknight.com.
My Name Was Lin Yi
Before, I worked in a photographer’s shop. It was Chan Shan’s place, just two rooms and a door opening onto an alley in a small town near the sea. It stood along the route the Imperial Soldiers took on their way home from Nanjing to the island of the Sun. I left when I was still a child. Stolen aboard a ship, looking after a white woman’s children. I held her babies, dressed them for Sunday dinner, never forgetting the photographs sewn into my hem.
When we made land, Mrs Collingham gave me my own room in the loft, my own bed. I preferred to sleep in the nursery with the children, their breathing at night the only thing that could drown the cries stitched into my dress. There had been a young mother, still alive, who, when I tried to fall asleep, crawled in circles before my eyes. At the end of an alley. Pulling herself by her arms, as if her legs could no longer move.
On the ship, one night when my fingers brushed across the secret place in my dress, I thought of that young mother, and I realised the little wet bag that she had been tugging by a glistening rope must have been her infant. Or it was her womb.
Or maybe that is a lie.
There is a photo. There are several. They are still in my dress. And one of them is of her, on her back, naked with blood smeared across her abdomen in tones of black and white. Her legs are open, bare, smudged. Her eyes are open. I processed that photo alone in the back room the night before I ran away. Not yet a woman myself, I watched this dead woman’s body emerge on the small square of paper in the near-dark, my hands stained, like hers. So, something is true.
On the boat to England, Mrs Collingham’s children called me their ‘Nanny Parrot’ because a bird had attached itself to my shoulder – the owner must have died on the long passage – and without me, the bird would take to pecking at the children. I’d shush the silly thing with Chinese words I no longer know the meaning for, and the children would laugh, giving me bits of carrot and potato to feed it.
One day, after we’d all settled into the house and life had found its own patterns, Mrs asked if I might like a husband of my own, children. A man had enquired of me at the church. It turned out I reminded him of a Chinese girl he’d rescued in the war, and I think he must have loved her very much because he very nearly loved me. And I him. He was gentle, as was I, and gentle is ever such a good way to be.
My granddaughter, born just two days ago, has my round face, my round mouth. I hold her and whisper to her, Dear Girl, live well, and if you can, be kind. She has hazel eyes to match her name. Hazel, to match the tree Mrs had planted in her garden and could finally return home to. Hazel, to match the name she’d given me on that long journey when her children insisted I was their Nanny Parrot.
I’ve asked to be buried with the dress. The Imperial soldiers’ deeds will pass with me, the photographs we were all asked to process – keep working, keep working, don’t sleep – exactly the evidence they’d needed to prove they’d become men. Oh, how they would wait just inside the shop door. They wouldn’t go away until Chan Shan, his head bowed, his left hand grasping his right forearm, passed them the wrapped bundles, one after another after another, the bundles that would convince their Imperial families of their bravery when they returned home. They were no longer boys, you see.
Forgive me, Chan Shan, for keeping some of those old photographs for myself. For hiding them in my dress that last night when I could no longer stay awake. You pointed to the floor in the back room and you left. I don’t know what I was thinking.
Forgive me, old man, or whoever you were who owned the green and pink parrot, for teaching your orphaned bird my angry Chinese words. I was only a child then.
Inspiration for this story comes from a visit to the Nanjing Massacre Museum a few years ago. One of the exhibits is a series of photographs ca. 1937, taken by Japanese soldiers of their Chinese victims. As the soldiers left Nanjing to return to Japan, they stopped to get their rolls of film developed at shops along the coast. Some of the shop owners kept some of the photos.