Diana Xin


Not the cement poured over the courtyard where tawny dirt once dusted her ankles.

Not the air and how it has thickened, gritty as the cataracts clouding her irises.

Not the tooth that prostrated itself into the bed of her gums and refused to get back up.

Not the walnut she cracked open with the hilt of a rolling pin, only to find the nut inside black and shriveled.

Not the money her children gave on her last birthday, tucked under her pillow and then stolen a few weeks later by someone who came through the village and broke the lock on her door.

Not the day her husband went to collect coal from the mines and was rammed in the torso by someone else's cart. 

Not the last words she said to my cousin, the one who died at 16, run down on his motorcycle by a driver still unknown.

Not the ways in which all my other cousins have flown, to work and school and government posts or new business ventures or fledgling food stalls, into solid or rocky marriages, slow separations, longer and harder labors.

Not the flights my sister and I took to America, aged six and three, an ocean beyond her reach.

Not any of the times she has stood outside the blue metal doors of her front gate, hands clasped behind her back as if to keep herself from grasping as she sends off another child, or child of child, or child of child of child, face crowded with worry, back stooped lower each year, statue still until they turned out of the long dirt lane echoing with departures and awaiting her own.


The two things she regrets, she has told them to me twice, so I know she has done some thinking on this. To accumulate so many years and so few regrets: this must be a life well lived. I am back with her for three days, after three weeks of travel elsewhere. The countryside is where people run to after they have mis-stepped on some other path. It is safe here. The chase continues elsewhere. Each night, my grandmother pulls the bolt over the blue metal doors and checks the padlock on the chain, letting it swing back with a clang that resounds like weaponry. Now we are shut us into our quiet routines. A rooster crows at first light. Goats bleat the stars away. My grandmother crouches on a footstool outside, tending charcoal shaped like cut flowers and stacked inside a piped stove. She boils water for drinking and cooking, each morning a porridge of millet and yams, brown eggs to unshell on the side. I haul buckets of water to every room and hand-wash my laundry next to the well. My grandmother studies my technique and teaches me to gather the sleeves so two ends meet before I begin my wringing. There are ways to fold a life that renders it a new shape—impossible to lay smooth the same way again. There are books I've folded shut before I finished reading, never questioned their endings. When the last of my socks are pinned to the clothesline, we move our benches to follow the afternoon sun. Five pairs, my grandmother marvels, but her laugh is not quite the same full sound I've come to expect, so I demur to tell her about the other two, tucked safe inside my suitcase. I pick a pomegranate from the tree and shuck each seed with my teeth. My last visit here, all my uncles brought beer and baijiu. My aunts busied their hands with rounds of dumpling skin. In the courtyard, my cousins' children chased the chickens and each other, pissed puddles against the date tree, showed off new tricks on bicycles and baby shoes that squeaked. Now they have all gone elsewhere. Most days, my grandmother sits alone. Her second regret: That she has never seen the land I left her for. By the time my mother corralled the paperwork, she was too old, her eldest son said, to travel so far. The dirt and water of a new country would not be compatible to her health, so she stayed here at home and never saw our wealth, our bounty. Does she believe in green-grass lawns groomed by an HOA or plumbing hidden behind plastered walls? Always she asks about temperature and weather, worrying that we let ourselves grow cold. Her first regret, I won't share here, but who is to say I don't carry a parcel of her anger? Something to fuel the bones. After each meal there are dishes to clean and scrape with dried sorghum leaves, slops to carry out for the goatherder. Then it is time for the next meal. In Seattle, a mess of mail waits on my kitchen table, each letter a new question I can't answer. How to follow a decision down each trail of divisions? How to find a path that won't lead you to stare across the water, a view of something better, what you could have had. Regret comes easy to me, perhaps desire as well. I crave the crop and regret the harvest before it comes. Choice leaves me a scarecrow. My grandmother picks for me a sliver of meat that shines with fat and grease, places it into my bowl, and though it is full, I make room for more. I've never known hunger, but I know how to stay hungry. When my grandmother laughs, her joy lilts up as it ends, expands to resist erasure. Eat, she says, there is plenty. There is so much. How shameful it is, to let such fortune go to waste.