A Ghost in My SuitcaseAuthor: Gabrielle Wang
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The Silver Bird
Hey there, Mama
I'm a bird. I'm flying so high.
Maybe from up here I can see the Isle of Clouds.
I've been overseas once before . . . when I was three. That was to Tasmania with Mama and Papa. Robbie hadn't been born yet.
My memories are fuzzy as if they're frozen inside a giant iceberg.
I remember a potoroo in a carpark. A silver streak in a stream. An upside-down mountain in a lake.
And I remember swinging between Mama and Papa's arms.
Papa said Mama is in heaven. But my little brother, Robbie, said they wouldn't let her in because she's never been to church.
I see Mama on a golden boat, sailing towards the Isle of Clouds where our ancestors came from.
That's a nice picture in my mind. I'm going to keep it there forever.
My name is Celeste LaClaire. I am twelve years old. I have dark brown eyes and long skinny arms and legs. I got the dark bits from my mum, who is Chinese, and the long skinny bits from my dad, who's French. Papa met Mama when he was studying Chinese painting in Shanghai. They got married and came to Australia. That's where I was born.
Mama said I look like my Chinese grandma, who I'm on my way to visit. I call her Por Por, which means 'grandma on your mum's side' in Chinese. In China, everyone in your family has a special name. It's like being part of a big jigsaw puzzle. You always know where you belong, and who you belong to.
Before Mama died I felt as if I could wrap up the day and put it in my pocket and know exactly what it was going to be like the next morning. But now I feel trapped, as if I'm in a giant spiderweb. The more I struggle, the tighter the web gets, until my heart is squeezed so tight I can hardly breathe.
In the hallway of our house is a big camphorwood chest. It's full of bright, colourful silk dresses from China. Mama was supposed to wear one of those dresses at her wedding. But she wore a white wedding dress instead. Por Por said in China, white is only worn at funerals. But Mama didn't care. Sometimes I climb inside that big old chest and lie very still. I love the smell of camphor, the quiet rustle of the silk, the cool touch against my skin. And as I lie there, some of the pain goes away.
There's a photo on the hall table. Por Por is standing beside a rock as tall as a man. It's wrinkly like an old paper bag and as holey as Swiss cheese. Mama said the rock comes from the bottom of Lake Taihu, a very special lake in the south of China. There's something weird about that rock, though. Por Por has her arm looped through one of the holes, and her head is tilted towards it as if she's sharing a secret with her very best friend.
These memories play on my mind as I look out of the aeroplane window. Way down below I see tiny towns. They wink at me in the sun like rolled-up balls of silver paper. The earth has long scars across its skin. 'It's a living organism, Celeste,' Papa once told me. 'Like people, it needs to be taken care of.' I wonder if it feels pain, too, when it loses a part of itself.
It takes almost all day and night to get to China. I wanted Papa and Robbie to come with me, but Papa said I had to go by myself. He's a famous artist. He and I used to paint together. But he hasn't touched a paintbrush since Mama died. It's as if his mind has drifted away and left his body behind.
A flight attendant called Eve is looking after me on the plane. Her hair is straight and golden. She's nice, and when she talks the end of her nose wiggles. We all get served dinner even though it's past midnight. I watch two movies. I write in my diary. And I think about Robbie. Papa doesn't know it, but Robbie comes into my room every night and sleeps on the floor beside my bed. Robbie is brave about everything – even injections! But he's too scared to sleep by himself. He's scared he might never wake up because that's what happened to Mama. In the beginning I used to get angry because I wanted my own space. Then I began to see how much he hurt inside, too.
I put my seat back and drift off to sleep. I don't know why, but I never dream about Mama . . . not since she died, even though I want to so much. Instead, I have a terrifying dream about Por Por.
Por Por and I are walking along the beach when a toadfish the size of a small car leaps out of the water onto the sand and blocks our way. It's huge and fat with big bulging eyes and spikes all over its body. I'm so scared I can't move. I see that Por Por has a sword in her hand. She thrusts the sword inside the fish's mouth and . . .
I feel someone shaking me awake.
'We're almost there, Celeste.' Eve is leaning over me. She takes my blanket and tells me to put the back of my seat up.
I look out the window. I see white farmhouses with black-tiled roofs, and canals running alongside narrow roads. There are small rectangular fields of green and yellow, and ponds that look like mirrors all over the land. I feel excited and scared.
I pick up my backpack and hug it gently. 'Nearly there, Mama,' I whisper. Mama always wanted to return to China one day. So that's where I'm taking her ashes, back to the Isle of Clouds, to the home of our ancestors.