He had a feeling that Mother was going to die tonight.
At dinner time, Mother shook her head and pushed away
the bowl of rice porridge she had only half finished. He looked
into her eyes with apprehension. Mother behaved like a timid
child; she turned the other way and looked in silence toward the
window on the other side of the room, avoiding him.
“Don’t want to eat any more?”
She shook her head, still not looking back.
“Then go to bed early. Oh yes . . . it’s been quite a while
since your toenails were cut. I’ll wash your feet and cut your
toenails, and then you can go to bed.”
This time Mother turned around, wearing an expression
which showed that she indeed wished me to cut her toenails.
This made him even more convinced that Mother was going to die. Mother has often said that when she dies, she
wants to be neat and clean, that she will not leave this world
with anything dirty on her—including, of course, dirty toenails.
In the afternoon, the lady upstairs came knocking at our
door to remind us to vote for a new head of the neighborhood
tomorrow. “ . . . be sure not to vote for the guy named Cheng.
You see, he has been elected twice, but the high tension wire is
still there at the entrance to our neighborhood. Incompetent, just
plain incompetent! My daughter has been complaining about
headache all the time recently. It must have been the high tension
wire that caused it. Not just headache, one also becomes
retarded! This has been reported on TV, right?”
He knows the lady upstairs is the vote broker of a certain
political party, and that he himself and Mother all fall within her
“responsibility district.” The lady upstairs knows and trusts that
I will docilely follow her instructions. Indeed, I will vote
according to her instructions, for I don’t care a bit about such
But the lady upstairs is a bit worried about bedridden
Mother. She knows Mother always has her own opinion, and no
one can sway her.
“Has Auntie felt better? Can she get up . . . tomorrow and
go to vote? You know, if the weather is fine, I’ll go borrow a
wheelchair and will personally . . . personally wheel Auntie to
the voting booth. Anyway, this will be a good occasion to go
out for a breath of fresh air; it is not good to be cooped up all
day long. And who knows, maybe a reporter will catch sight of
you and write a story. This will make you and your mother really
famous! Wouldn’t that be great?”
He said, we’ll see tomorrow, we’ll see tomorrow, and
closed the door.
While cutting her toenails, he was also thinking whether or
not to mention this matter to her. Suddenly, Mother uttered a cry
of pain. In a lapse of attention he cut too close to the quick.
Mother’s toenails were difficult to trim. Because of her
advanced age, the toenails were all drawn together and you have
to spread them out one by one. Besides, she was also suffering
from ring worms of the nails, and every nail was seriously calcified,
thick, hard and very difficult to cut. When you cut, white
powdery stuff fell off, flying all over.
When Mother reached a certain age, she insisted that only
he could cut her nails. Mother’s excuse was that, unlike other
people who always got to her quick, he was very careful. In
reality, however, she enjoyed the intimacy of mother and son
being together. Nevertheless, every time he cut Mother’s nails,
he had to be careful not only not to cause her pain, but to watch
out for the powdery nails flying all over, for he was afraid that
he might get hard, thick and ugly nails too from the same ring
“Mom . . . ,” he wanted to ask Mother whether she was
really dying today. He knew that Mother knew very well the
order in which things such as these were arranged, it was only
that she didn’t want to tell him or anybody else.
“Mom . . . ,” he tried a second time. The way Mother
looked at him made him see that Mother didn’t want to answer
such a question, so he said, instead:
“The lady upstairs came this afternoon to ask whether she
should take you to the polling station in a wheelchair tomorrow.
She said this would be a good chance to breathe some fresh air,
and at the same time do what a good citizen should do.”
Mother didn’t say anything. He knew this meant that
Mother wouldn’t go vote tomorrow. Does her unwillingness to commit herself to things tomorrow mean Mother was about to
die? Should I call Wife to come over to wait and take care of
this matter together with me? Although we were divorced a year
ago, Wife and Mother still maintain a friendly and amiable relationship.
Wife also maintains a matter-of-factly, neither-warmnor-
cold attitude toward me, though we are no longer husband
and wife. Of course, when they pick a fight, it is still fierce and
frightening, but when the relationship is chummy, Wife will go
so far as to hint, like she did over the phone last time, that she
would help find someone for him to marry again and form a new
family: “Your mother is going to be gone sooner or later, it’s better
for you to find some other woman to take care of you, so that
you won’t become a pitiable lonely old man.”
But what if Wife asks later how do I know Mother will be
gone today? He won’t be able to give a satisfactory answer. In
fact, Mother is not suffering from any specific illness, she just
lies there in bed, nothing wrong with her, so you can’t send her
to the hospital. It is just that she is old, worn, no longer nimble,
and in a state where she may die any time. Then Wife is sure to
shoot back, she has been in such a state for a long time, how do
you know it’ll be today? The point is, he knows for sure it’ll be
today, so does Mother. They both know. But such a feeling
between mother and son cannot be conveyed to others, be they
wives or friends or neighbors. Completely impossible. No one
who hears it will ever believe, just like Wife has never ever
believed that such a tacit,....