I gently pushed open the door of Great-Grandmother’s bedroom,
afraid to disturb her. As I was walking past the dining
room, my grandfather had warned me that Great-Grandmother
had just taken her medicine and was probably asleep so I should
be careful not to wake her when I went in.
It was a smallish side-room, maybe about thirty square
meters, and it was the central room in the right wing of the
house that occupied three sides of a courtyard. Behind it was a
huge osmanthus tree which provided shade from the late-afternoon
sun for all the windows that faced west, making them especially
When I stepped into the room, I was greeted by a nauseating stench, the combined odor of assorted drugs, excrement,
urine and the cloying smell of various things that were going
moldy, and I was jolted by an involuntary shudder as I was
greeted by that dank atmosphere.
Great-Grandmother was lying on the huge wooden bed, her
dried-out white hair falling untidily over the crimson wooden
head-rest, and under the flowery blue coverlet her shrunken
body was curled up from long illness. Her position in the middle
of such a large bed made her appear as tiny as a baby.
“Is that . . . is that Fa-tsai?” The abrupt rasping of her
voice, like the hoarse croaking of a sick goose, frightened me. I
had thought that she was asleep, and had intended to sneak in
and tiptoe up to her bed to have a look at her, so the sudden
sound left me momentarily frozen to the spot.
“Is that Fa-tsai?” she asked again.
“Yes, it is, Great-Grandma,” I said as I hurried over to her.
“I’ve come back to see you!”
She did not say anything more. Her eyes were covered by a
white film, but with an effort she raised her hand as if intending
to stroke my head. Unable to reach me, she let her hand fall
back down again, but a smile crept over her lips.
“You little monkey. I just . . . asked you to go and pick
some flowers for your Great-Grandma, so where did you run off
Just? It was already a week since I had last seen her. I was
studying in high school in Kaohsiung and living in a dormitory
there, so I was only able to come back and see her once a week.
It was on the previous Sunday that she had asked me to go and
pick some flowers!
“Great-Grandma, I just went and had a look, and the
osmanthus flowers aren’t out yet.” I reached over to smooth her disheveled hair, and she smiled as she stretched out to grasp my
hand and then trailed her other hand down my chest.
This had been Great-Grandmother’s custom for some time.
When I was still in the second grade of primary school, she had
gone blind and, concerned that she should not be left alone, my
grandfather had told me to go and sleep next to her. Under the
coverlet, Great-Grandma liked to stroke my body from the head
downwards, and then she would happily say, “Ah, Fa-tsai,
you’re growing up!”
Yes, I was indeed growing up, and now I was a student in
my third year at high school. Did Great-Grandma think I was
still a child in the second grade of primary school? Was she
really so ill that her perception of time was completely distorted?
When I thought about it, my smile evaporated and sad tears
welled up in my eyes.
Great-Grandmother had not been sick for just a day or two.
She had been living with chronic diabetes for a long time and
towards the end of the previous year it reached the stage where
she was unable to walk. However, even though she was both
crippled and blind, she stubbornly clung to life like a persistent
weed with its roots firmly entrenched in the ground.
On the first and fifteenth of every month, she insisted that
one of the family support her for the two-kilometer walk down
the hill to offer incense at a temple. Sometimes everyone was
too busy with work in the fields and had no time to accompany
her, and then she would sit in her room and throw a tantrum.
“How can you be so cavalier about a promise to the gods!”
She would go on nagging incessantly till one of us finally
gave in and went with her. Once everyone got so fed up with
her that they asked me to take her even though I was just in the
third grade of primary school at the time. It was a summer’s
afternoon just after it had stopped raining, and the muddy surface
of the road was coated with water and had become quite
slippery, so I had to help her walk along carefully. Several
times we slipped and nearly fell over, ....