I See It All
Early Saturday I woke to fog, the San Francisco kind that made the windows in our house steam up and the front door stick. I felt anxious for the warmth that surrounded Mom after she'd woken up the kitchen: coffee boiling on the stove, just-washed dishes steaming on the rack beside the sink, the glowing half-light of morning.
I bounded down the stairs to the kitchen in my cowboy pajamas, and nearly tripped over Dad who was asleep on the kitchen floor—one arm curled under his head and the other soaking in a puddle of sesame oil. Mom stood over him, hand on hip, the other cradling her pregnant belly. She turned to me. "Edmund, I don't know where your dad is trying to go," she said in Cantonese.
"Is he hurt?" I asked, unable to look away from Dad, whose eyes were wide open even though he was gently snoring. "Aren't you worried?"
"Sure! But I think, maybe this time he falls, then wakes up and sees how stupid he looks, walking around like a zombie."
I hadn't believed Mom's wild stories about how Dad sleepwalked through the last few days leading up to my birth, twelve years ago. I pictured Mom in her pink terrycloth robe, sash tied crookedly over her bulging middle, as she followed Dad around our darkened house late at night as he sleepwalked; Mom would plod silently, waddle ahead to move chairs and push sharp table corners out of Dad's path. And in the early morning light, hours before I'd woken, she would wipe his big greasy handprints off the kitchen walls and ceiling.
Mom gently poked Dad's arm with her toe. "Your dad sleepwalks only because he is sleep-hungry. You should see his appetite. He picks up his chopsticks, everything into his mouth—whole tofu blocks, raw cabbage, even spicy radishes. And your dad hates radishes." She absentmindedly rubbed her protruding belly. "Anyway, you are only twelve. Why do you worry like an old man?"
"Why did you leave him here?" I crouched down next to Dad, who had stopped snoring, and put a finger up to his nose to make sure that he was breathing.
Mom shrugged, then squeezed her eyes shut in pain.
She rubs her pregnant belly. "A little kicking. Anyway, you are old enough now. And I think this morning, maybe it is time."
Dad woke up, groggy and stiff, just as I finished warming soymilk on the stove. I peppered him with questions. "I can't believe this! What did you see? What did you do? Where did you go?"
"What can I tell you?" he responded in a husky voice as he sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. Mom tossed him a gray dishtowel. As Dad dabbed at the bright orange sesame oil soaked on his white pajama sleeve, he spoke. "I don't know why my dreams are real."
"That's it?" I complained, and looked over to Mom, but she was busy digging through the fridge, muttering about the shredded uncooked wonton skins and chicken bone splinters and the half-chewed pork dumplings that Dad left behind.
I turned back to Dad. "Tell me what you see."
Dad studied the spot on the floor where Mom had tried scrubbing out the sesame oil; the tiles were black and white and glittering, the grout stained orange.
"At night outside it is dark, for you," Dad began. "But when I sleep, there is no difference between night and day."
"None? You mean it's light no matter what? That's awesome!"
I gripped the table edge, pulled my chair up close to Dad, and leaned in.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. No difference," he said matter-of-factly. "But I don't say that it's awesome or that it's good. Nothing like that."
"Oh?" I say.
Dad gave me a long, curious stare and my face burned.
"It's like this, Edmund. The stars and moon shine all the time, not just at night. But most people see only half the light. Just the sun. It's no wonder they sleep in the very dark, sleep without seeing." Dad reclined in his chair, closed his eyes, and after a few moments, said, "The moon shines for me, lights my dreams, lights my day and night. I can taste and feel, walk and see, in my dreams. I see rivers. I catch fish and ducks from a dock on the water with my bare hands. I eat everything."
I nodded vigorously even though Dad's eyes were now shut. Dad played with his oily sleeve as he thought of something else to say, then lifted his fingers to his nose. Did they smell like toasted sesames? Or did they smell earthy, salty, like river and algae and fish?
"I don't go to sleep to find the river. I don't hold onto everything, like you do, Edmund. You want answers, always, to see everything right in front of you as clearly as the sun. But it's not only your eyes that can see." His voice was thick and full of phlegm. He curled his greasy fingers into a fist, as if trying to conceal something in his palm. He cleared his throat and, before I could speak, stood up and started towards the bathroom. He took one last look at Mom who was still kneeling before the open fridge, grumbling as she cleaned up Dad's deranged banquet. Through the kitchen window above Dad's head, I spied a seagull flying way up high, a slender black shadow sliding across the flat white sky. Could birds sleep and fly at the same time, too?
I figured that the easiest way to find answers to my questions was to follow Dad while he sleepwalked. At dinner, I told my parents, "Tonight, I will find out where Dad goes."
Mom studied me over plates of gingery fish and scallops, pickled duck web and salted squid, and bowls of rice.
"Edmund," she said. "You sleep like you are dead. Your dad sleeps like he is awake. Do you really think you can follow him?"
"I am one hundred percent positive. I have a plan."
Mom shook her head. "Look, last night I followed your dad because he is making a mess in my kitchen. I tell him, 'Wake up! Go back to sleep!' but he just sleepwalks away."
Dad twirled a chopstick between his fingers like a baton. "Like I told your mom...you can try to follow me, but these are my dreams," he said, using the chopstick to point at his temples for emphasis. "When I sleepwalk, I see things that no one else can. Do you understand, Edmund?"
I frowned and studied Mom who sipped her tea slowly. The purple bags under her eyes were more pronounced now than they were in the morning. Her hair was tangled, her shirt sleeve was stained. Mom, who never left the house with so much as a button misaligned before her pregnancy, now looked as if she were falling apart. For the first time, I began to worry whether Dad would leave—leave if he had the chance. What would happen to Mom? And what was Dad scared of? Was he scared of a house filling with a baby's wailing? Was he afraid of losing his dreams? Why wasn't he afraid of Mom accidentally hurting the baby while she moved furniture out of Dad's way?
Later, in bed, I stayed awake for as long as I could, and imagined all the things Dad had seen the night before: ducks, fish, river water—all bathed in light. I imagined finding him in the dark living room, watching as he opened a heavy oak door, golden light spilling in. I imagined the sounds of water gently lapping against the dock, of birds' friendly quacking. And I imagined Dad holding the door open for me and Mom, waving us in to his dream world, a world safe from the dangers of birth, from purple eye bags, from stained sleeves and pinched eyebrows. I pulled the covers up over my chin, rubbed my feet together to get them warm, and slept the sleep of the dead.
I did not wake up like I planned. Late Sunday morning I found Mom standing in our driveway, shoulders slumped, and rubbing her pregnant belly in slow, small circles. Dad was asleep on top of our old Chrysler station wagon. His salt-and-pepper hair needed a good combing, and his white-orange pajama sleeve, which was snagged at the base of the car's antenna, had lost its oily sheen.
Mom told me that the sheets of bubble-wrap that Dad let me place on the ground beside his bed last night had popped when he got out of bed. "They sounded just like firecrackers, rat-tat-tat!" she said with full moon eyes. "Very loud. But you and your dad still didn't wake up. Only me."
"And the cup of water?" I asked.
"When he pushed open our bedroom door, it tipped and splashed all over him, just like you planned. He doesn't even blink, just smiles. Your dad must have dreamed he was the dragonhead in the Chinese New Year parade. It rains every year, you know?" Mom mimicked a slithering dragon with her arms. I wondered what the neighbors would think if they saw Mom slithering, both arms straight overhead, her pink robe straining to stay closed over her pregnant belly.
I jabbed a small dirt mound beside the driveway with my slippered toe, then rested it there until ants began to crawl up my leg. I brushed them off, and thought about the time I left a dead mouse on the ant hill, how I returned each day to see what the ants would do. And how in just one week, the insects had devoured and carried away the mouse's meat, tendons, cartilage, tender pink paw pads, fur, even its long gray whiskers. All that remained was the mouse's tiny skeleton.
Later, I asked Dad about his dreams. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat with me at the table while I finished my soggy bowl of corn flakes in warm soybean milk. He described the grand forest that he'd visited, the spires of trees, the golden winged creatures that resembled enormous seahorses soaring through the air. "The creatures, they just took me, lifted me with their tremendous wings. And we went in search of grasslands to stomp on with our hooves. And the feasts we had. Oh, the green garbanzos that glittered like brilliant emeralds. Slices of cake the size of...of...your bed. I just buried my face in frosty clouds of sugar icing. There were prisons, churches, schools...built out of bright vermillion pomegranate skins. The red, it was so red. Like a beating heart."
"Take me with you," I said. "Why can't I go with you?"
"Sometimes I wonder who I would be if I could not sleepwalk," he said, ignoring my question. "What if I had nowhere to go? But then I wake up with dirty feet and my bones creak like a broken wagon wheel, and my mouth burns and my stomach is full, and I know...I know that it's not a choice. I know that I've been somewhere."
"You can teach me to sleepwalk."
"To teach you...this is not something you teach." Dad looked out the kitchen window over my head and sighed tiredly.
I wanted to tell him that I was terrified of his ravenous sleep. I wanted to ask him whether he preferred his sun-drenched dreaming life, to his awake life with me and Mom? Did he feel caged in? When he slumbered his way to our station wagon, was he trying to leave us? When he chewed cantaloupe rinds, raw shrimp, whole sticks of butter, was he trying to fill his stomach with life, the way that Mom's held my baby brother's? Weighed down by my need to understand, these questions felt like rocks in my own stomach. All I could say was, "Why don't you believe in me?"
Dad sighed and closed his eyes. For a long time he just sat there, slowly breathing in and out, oblivious, and I realized that I could not tell if he was awake or asleep.
That night, as soon as Mom and Dad went to bed, I snuck down to the kitchen. Unlike the mornings, where the room glowed with Mom's light, the room was inky black. Sounds of my footsteps were muffled by my thick socks and the hum of the refrigerator; the ground felt sticky underfoot. I went to the pantry, silently pulled out boxes of waffle mix, week-old brownies, a bag of sesame seeds, molasses, a jar of canola oil, a can of garbanzo beans, a bag of flour. I hunted through the fridge and grabbed celery, spinach dip, an enormous bunch of bok choy, milk. And in my hushed hunger, I crunched into the celery and bok choy with my fangs. I inhaled handfuls of seeds, which I washed down with milk and the garbanzo juice. I peeled the plastic lid off the tub of dip, spread the creamy paste on slices of bread, sprinkled beans on top, then stuffed it all into my mouth. I waded into the bag of flour like a dusty moth, grabbed handfuls which I mixed with canola oil and dark brown molasses. I shoveled the mud into my mouth.
After what felt like hours, though just minutes had passed, I stood back to view my progress. The mud on my hands had hardened into a thick glove; when I wiggled my fingers, the crust crumbled. I'd barely made a dent in the food. The dusty air swirled with flour. Bags and boxes I'd ripped open and empty cans were strewn around the kitchen floor. My stomach churned and bellowed. I marveled at how Mom could carry all this weight, this rich, roiling life inside of her for nine whole months. My stomach pinched again, and I wished right then that I could die, that Mom or Dad would find me, carry my body down to the ant hill. I wished for the small mound to turn into a great peak, for ants the size of salamanders to peel my body apart, and walk away with my meat and beans, my limbs and hips and thighs, all the way down, clear to the bone.
I left my mess, crept back to my bed without washing up. As I fell asleep, I thought about how I was no longer just Dad's fragile shadow, just residue biology. I wanted to tell Dad not to be scared of the new baby, to look at how I had become my own odyssey, journeyed to the land of indigestion, without maps or charts, and the ground was flowering and vibrating just for me.
It was sometime after midnight when a jolt sent me tumbling out of bed, my sheets wrapped around me like I was a pork dumpling. With my cheek smashed against the floor, I listened to the earthquake; it cracked and rumbled and let out a deep boom like thunder. The oak floorboards rolled and water sloshed out of Ed-junior-junior's fish tank.
"This is the Big One!" I yelled in the dark.
Mom suddenly appeared in my doorway; she grabbed me, sheets and all, and we bolted out to the backyard. By the time Mom and I reached the bench in the center of the garden, the shaking stopped and I was wide awake.
I was shocked to find Dad already seated on the bench in his white pajamas, head cranked back, chin and slow-blinking brown eyes aimed at the night sky. I wrapped the sheets tighter around myself and pressed in close to Dad. I wanted him to pat my head or squeeze my shoulder, but he just continued to breathe, evenly and heavily, out of his gaping mouth.
A baby cried somewhere nearby and shouts echoed up and down our darkened street which, like the rest of the city, had no electricity. While Mom dug around in our small, messy tool shed in search of a flashlight, I looked up into the sky like Dad. It was a clear night; the earthquake must have shaken all the fog away. The moon, white and shaped like a watermelon slice, peeked out from just over our neighbor's house. Was the moon scared, too?
The whole sky seemed to grow smaller as it moved up and away from us to make room for the stars burning in the blue-black horizon. Unlike the moon, the stars were not hiding. There were thousands of shimmering clusters, and behind them were millions more. The longer I stared, the more stars appeared. I was afraid that the darkness could not hold so much light, and the stars would fall like fiery apples from a tree, right onto our heads.
Mom returned with an enormous flashlight, which she carried snug against her belly, like a loaf of bread. "No batteries. Ai-ya! What does your dad do when he's not sleeping?" She gently patted Dad's cheek, and looked up at the moon. "Remember this sky, Edmund. You might never see it like this again."
When I offered to return to the house to find a working flashlight, she responded, "Stay with him. He needs you." She handed me the useless flashlight before leaving. I knew that she could walk the house blindfolded after hours of trailing Dad in the blackness, but after several minutes I began to worry that she had stumbled in the dark, her toe catching on the lip of a doorway. Or that she walked into the sharp corner of the kitchen table, shifted out of place for Dad's sleep path. Or that she tripped over the mess I'd left in the kitchen, landed on her stomach, crushing my baby brother, and I would never get the chance to teach him all that I know.
I started to stand up, to go to her, when Dad sighed loudly and smacked his lips like he was hungry. I leaned back against him. I wanted to pluck a star from the sky and put it in Dad's mouth so that he lit up from the inside out. Then light would shine from his eyeballs and mouth and even his ears, and he would guide Mom safely back to us. I wanted to tell him, I see it all: the bright stars, the blue-black sky, the glow from the low white moon.
"Tonight," I whispered into Dad's sleeping ear, "we are seeing the same thing."
's stories appear or are forthcoming in FRiGG, Tahoma Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Liminal Stories, Forge Literary Magazine, Midnight Breakfast
among others. She was awarded the Spring Creek Collaborative Residency, which is dedicated to writers inspired by nature and science. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches creative and science writing at California State University Stanislaus, and is co-founder of The Escapery