“You are adopted. They found you somewhere in Grandma’s garden,” cousin Hao explained.
As the youngest of three cousins, I was told many stories about why my living arrangements were the way they were. I stayed over with my grandparent’s three school nights a week and most weekends too. Whenever I asked Dad about it, he said it was because he and Mom had very busy jobs and they needed to work late nights and weekends. The conversations never went very far.
“Real parents didn’t need a break from their children,” cousin Tian said, “My mom saw your parents at the pool last weekend. They were giggling.”
I tried to remember if Mom ever giggled when Dad wasn’t around. She was always happier when Dad was there.
“No wonder she is always sad. She wants her own baby,” Tian added.
“Liars,” I screamed and bit Tian.
Whenever Hao and Tian mentioned the adoption story again, I ran after them with my teeth gnashing. My tantrums made them laugh. They coddled me and told me they still loved me even though I was pick up from the garden. I said I didn’t believe them, but I did on the inside, it made sense. Why else would I spend so much time with my grandparents? On the news, there were always stories about babies found in the strangest places. My mom was different from all the other mothers I knew. She refused to take me to dance classes even though I begged, but she did always make sure I wasn’t hungry or cold. And she made me wash my fruit before eating it. She must care about me.
I had to prove I wasn’t adopted, so I started sifting through the photo albums looking for evidence I was my mom’s baby that she birthed me. I even went through the box that Mom kept hidden from Dad, the box where she kept money and jewelry. But I couldn’t find a single picture from the hospital.
Eventually, I asked Dad. “Why don’t I have any pictures from when I was born?”
“Why are you asking honey?”
“Hao and Tian said I was adopted.”
He laughed so hard he started to cough, “Dear, you can’t believe everything people say.” He paused to laugh and cough some more. “I was in such a rush that day I forgot the camera.”
“Other people would have had cameras?” I asked and watched his face for any signs of lying, but I didn’t see any. His body was still recovering from the laughing and coughing.
“I don’t remember. We were all so happy after you came out, we probably forgot. We took plenty of pictures when you came home. You can’t believe them. You are my daughter, I promise.”
“But,” I said. I stopped because I could sense Dad wasn’t interested in answering my questions anymore.
“Stop it. Don’t be silly. Your mom loves you.”
And not long after that conversation, I noticed signs. I found a birthmark inside my left knee that mirrored the one inside my mom’s right knee. Every day I studied myself in the mirror, and soon enough I found Grandfather’s chubby fingers, Dad’s ears, and Mom’s double-jointed elbows.
By then, my cousins had stopped telling me I was adopted. They said that had been a joke, and the real reason I spent so much with my grandparents was that my mom was ill. They said my mom ate too many watermelon seeds, and one of those seeds was taking root in her stomach and moving down through her legs to the floor. Soon a plant would push itself through her spine, up to her neck, and out from the top of her head. That’s why she had joint pains. I stopped eating watermelons.
I asked Mom about the plant growing through her legs, and she said it was a silly old wives’ tale. But each evening, she asked me to bring hot towels to put on her knees. Maybe my cousins were right this time; the plant was taking root. It was digging deeper and soon it would come out through my mom’s feet. My grandmother mentioned once salt water kills plants so I started pouring salt on the hot towels before giving them to my mom, hoping the salt would kill the watermelon plant in her legs. It didn’t work. Mom’s pains continued, and she started putting hot towels on her ankles too. I had a nightmare where she was pinned to the floor by the thick green stems reaching out from the arches of her feet. She cried and moaned as Dad rounded his back, pulling her out of the ground. She was like an overgrown radish buried beneath the dense soil. I poured, even more, salt on her towels each night. I told Dad my concerns, but he just laughed and told me to stop wasting salt.
Then I learned the real story of Snow White and her horrible stepmother from my cousins. The evil stepmother was forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes. Afterward, I worried about Mom’s shoes. One evening, as I was about to put another spoon full of food in my mouth, I asked Mom if people made her dance in iron shoes at work. She was silent as her face twisted from surprise to anger. She pressed her hands into the edge of the table and stared at Dad with the most unbearable gaze. After a few seconds, she retreated to her room.
I froze. I couldn’t move. I started crying when Mom slammed her bedroom door shut. Dad rushed to my side, wiping my face. He yelled something towards the bedroom. The plant had possessed Mom.
Later that night, my parents fought after they had thought I was asleep. I pushed my ears against the wall and heard mom saying to dad repeatedly, “You told her? How could you!”
Whatever Mom and Dad were hiding, I had to find out. I was a resourceful child, a human bloodhound. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew Mom liked to hide things in the crevices between the furniture and the wall. She hid money and jewelry in a box tucked behind the headboard in their bedroom. It took a few days, but I eventually found what I was looking for.
It was a dirt-encrusted plastic bag tucked behind the electric box; I had to use a thin knitting needle to fish it out. Inside the bag was a blank sealed envelope, nothing written on the front or back. I sat on the floor holding it up to the light trying to decipher what was inside, but I couldn’t see much. I started to rip it open but paused when I thought about that night at dinner. If Mom found out I read her letter, she might get angry again. The consequences seemed better than not knowing, so I opened it.
Inside was a photo of my mom; she wore a long dark dress standing on her left toes while her other leg extended behind her at the perfect right angle. Her gaze followed the line of her arm reaching in front of her. Her cheeks were soft pink, and she looked beautiful and otherworldly, like a fairy about to fly off.
Behind the photo, it read “health and happiness in your pregnancy.”
I didn’t know Mom danced. She didn’t dance at any parties, and no one had ever told me anything about her as a dancer. I never wondered about the life she had before I was born. I never thought of her as being that young.
I put everything back in its place and slid the plastic bag behind the electric box again. But inside the plastic bag, the letter was already opened. I tried resealing the flap on the envelope, but the paper was wrinkled and torn. That afternoon, I sat quietly waiting for my parents to come home. From then on, I stopped believing any of my cousins’ stories.