Like most children, Étienne Shin Yi thought that his family was weird. Unlike most children, he was absolutely right. And he could prove it. They lived near an ancient cemetery (weird), his dad was from way far away and often lapsed into French when reading bedtime stories (weird), both his granddad and grandma grew up in overseas countries and ate food that he couldn't even pronounce (really weird), his aunt didn't have any kids and liked pillow fighting him (not so weird on its own, but all of his friends had old aunts and uncles, so maybe kind of weird), they didn't have any pets (SUPER weird), and even though they owned more land than anyone in school, they were still really poor somehow. (Weren't you supposed to be rich if you had a lot of land? Weird.)
But the weirdest thing of all was that even though they were so poor, his mom didn't work.
"No, honey," Xiu protested. "I do work, I sell my paintings."
That didn't make any sense, either. His mom was probably the best painter in town! She was definitely way, way better than his art teacher. And yet she still went to the second-hand store to beg them to accept her work.
"Oh, Étienne, honey, you don't understand." Xiu took a tiny bite of her french toast. "I used to work in an art gallery, but something went wrong there. No one here will buy my paintings, I have to sell them to people in other countries now."
Xiu shrugged. "I think I have cooties."
She smiled, but Étienne wasn't fooled. Grown-ups couldn't get the cooties! "Mama, 'm serious! Why?"
His mother sighed at the persistent tone in his voice. She heard it all the time lately. "Finish eating, and I'll take you somewhere, okay?"
She took him back to the art gallery, which stood lonely and locked. "Do you remember this place, sweetheart? Mama used to work here, and you used to play here every day. But the man who owned it got in trouble, and it's closed now."
"Did you get in trouble, too, Mama?" Étienne tried to imagine grown-up trouble. Did they have to stand in the corner in front of all of their friends?
Xiu nodded. "Not as much as he did, of course, but trouble is trouble." She heard the distant chime of the popiscle truck, and saw a possible way out of this unexpected, uncomfortable conversation. "Hey, the ice cream is coming. Do you want a cup of ice cream?"
As they walked towards the truck, Étienne thought about how unfair that was. How come his mama got in trouble for what someone else did? His papa had the same problem—other people had done bad things in France, and now his father couldn't get a job. Once Étienne had borrowed a dollar from his best friend, and it had taken him a whole month to pay it back to her. How long would it take Papa to pay back §230,000? Probably a whole lot of months. He'd bet he couldn't even count how many months.
Quite suddenly he ran up to his mother and caught her hand. "It's okay, Mama. We can't really afford it."
The words stung Xiu, especially when she recollected that Étienne had probably learned that very phrase from hearing her say it so much.
Gaston Dutiel slowly wheeled Layla Shin Yi's chair up to a shady corner of the public cemetery, where a small stone plate sat next to an elaborate marble headstone. He moved to leave her alone, but she stopped him with a word. "Wait."
He stayed, maintaining a respectful distance. Layla sat in silence for some time before murmuring, "Bury me next to my husband when I die."
"… of course, madam."
"The house must be enlarged. He was always so ridiculously stubborn about that—but I am not so."
She turned the chair to face him. "You will take care of the family, won't you?"
"Good. We cannot allow your talent for wine-making to languish, you must begin afresh here."
"Alas, madam … my equipment remains in France."
"Not for long," Layla purred, and pushed the wheelchair with purpose.
Gaston stared at her back, wondering what kind of wife she must have been. Obviously she enjoyed being in charge, but as her wishes seemed to have gone unfulfilled during her husband's life, the man must have had a will of his own. Still, no need to look a gift horse in the mouth. If Layla wanted him to begin building a larger home with a wine-making facility, he had no problem getting started on that.
Once they returned to the house, Layla pointed Gaston towards the two ancient chests that sat neglected in the hallways, and told him that the items were his to sell as he saw fit.
"Did you know that there are diamonds in here?" Gaston asked as he sifted through the contents of the crates.
Layla shrugged. "They are just rocks to me. I never pay any attention to rocks, you cannot eat a rock."
Kim Chong had been the vase collector, but as far as Layla was concerned, they were just some old pots that her husband had hoarded for years upon years. She had no interest in keeping them, displaying them, or finding out what they were worth. If anything, she hated them, and would be glad for the day that took them out of the house.
The next morning, Xiu awoke to the sound of crockery being set on concrete, a sound she knew all too well. She put on the first thing she could find and rushed outside, staring, shaking, stunned.
"Mr. Dutiel, what … what are you doing?"
"I am cleaning the vases, I will sell them today."
"What? Sell them? … but these are my father's, you can't do that!"
The older man looked up at her, puzzled, but still smiling. "Your mother gave them to me …" At the look on his future daughter-in-law's face, he continued, "... I believed that this was a mutual family decision. You seem upset. Perhaps the two of you should have a discussion?"
"Mr. Dutiel …" Xiu's voice shook; she controlled it with an effort. "Could you please … not sell those. Please. We're not that deep in debt. I know that Rémy just began work at the hospital, but I have several interested buyers for one of my best paintings, and I'm just waiting—"
"Xiu, my sweet. I am not selling the vases to pay debts."
"Then why?" Xiu said, more mystified than ever.
For answer, Mr. Dutiel pulled a wrinkled photo from his wallet. He offered it to her to look at; she didn't accept.
"This is my home in France, Xiu. Rémy grew up there, my vineyards and all of my best wines are there, my dear wife died there. Once Rémy could no longer attend university and could not get a job, our debts and taxes became overwhelming. The house was taken from us and sold. All I had to show for a lifetime of work was my recipe book.
"Your mother has already offered me the use of her garden, but as I explained to her, even with the proper grapes and the proper equipment, wine must be stored in a basement and aged properly. There is no use in making it otherwise. But to do that, I would need a proper house, monitoring equipment, a true cellar. That is, of course, quite expensive. That is why I am cleaning the vases. I will sell them to collectors, so that there will be money to build a new house for the family."
The more of this Xiu heard, the angrier she became. Wasn't this her home? Wasn't she the family heir, for heaven's sake? Why was her mother going behind her back to do such a thing?
… but as soon as that last thought crossed her mind she thought she might already know why. Layla had been lonely for years now, and Gaston was noticeably younger than she. And he, too, was alone.
She didn't want to believe it. But she knew her mother too well.
She swallowed hard, struggling with the bile rising in her throat. "Mr. Dutiel … please wait, just a few more days, and let's discuss this decision as a family. If everyone else is okay with it, then I'll have nothing else to say."
"Of course, my dear," Gaston agreed readily, and went back to cleaning.
Xiu wanted to talk the situation over with Rémy first, but she'd just missed him. He had been called into the hospital. She couldn't talk to Mei right now either because Mei, also, was at work. So she did the next best thing—she headed over to the cowboy bar to get a mid-morning cocktail. She couldn't paint right now, and the alcohol might help her temper level out.
It did, though not at all how she’d expected. The drink was potent but so sweet that she didn’t feel the alcohol until it was much too late. She called Mei, completely forgetting that Mei was on-duty, so all of the other bar-goers got to see her stumble out of the joint on the arm of a uniformed police officer. “You’re an idiot,” Mei laughed, and pulled the squad car up to the curb so her sister could crawl into the back seat. "At least you didn't try to drive."
“Why … why is the room spinning so fast?”
“Cherie, you are hungover and you have a fever. You must lie very quietly.”
“No … Rémy, I need to talk to everyone …” She tore herself from his arms and stumbled out of bed, but dizziness brought her straight to the floor.
Rémy caught her and kept her from hitting her head. “You are so stubborn. I love you for it, but you belong in bed." He picked up her and lay her down again. "Stay in bed, Xiu. Doctor’s orders,” he said, only half-joking.
As it turned out, she had strep throat, which meant not only was she seriously fatigued, but she needed to stay quiet. There were no talks with anyone; even if she could have talked, no one came in the room with her. The illness was too contagious.
When she finally emerged from her seclusion nearly a week later, the first thing she did was go outside and look all around the porch for any sign of her father’s cherished vases. But of course they weren’t there.
“What the hell are you doing?” Mei drawled. Even though it was 6 a.m. and she had coffee in hand, she was clearly not dressed for bed. She was probably just coming home from somewhere. “What’d you lose?”
“… a bunch of vases.”
“Vases? You mean those old things Gaston took to the consignment shop the other day?”
Xiu stopped short. When she’d been looking for the vases, it was easier not to acknowledge what she already knew—that they were gone. She tried to catch her unsteady breath. “I asked him not to do that until I could talk to everyone!”
“Yeah, he held on to them until yesterday. Then Mom told him to get ‘em outta here, so he did.”
“I can’t … I can’t believe this! I told him they were important to me—“
“Really, sis? You’re mad about this?”
“Those belonged to our father! Doesn't that mean something to you?"
“Yes, our father,” Mei repeated with a sigh, “who has been dead for seven years and whose property belongs to our mother. Not us. Remember?”
“You’re okay with this? Really?”
Mei gave her a tired look. “Xiu, get a grip. They’re just some old vases, they weren't holding Dad’s ashes or something! Besides, if they were so damn special, why didn’t he put them on display instead of keeping them buried in a box? He didn’t even clean them, they couldn’t have been that important.”
By now everyone was awake and crowding onto the porch, drawn by the sound of the argument.
They waited until Xiu stopped bawling and got control of herself. It took a while. The sun was rising by the time she finally dried her face. She looked at them: her annoyed sister, her bemused boyfriend and his nonplussed father, her sleepy son, and last of all, her treacherous mother, who stared at her with an unmistakable expression of triumph.
“So all of you agreed on this,” she finally managed. "And apparently without me."
“Look, I’m grown, damn it,” Mei shrugged. “If I gotta live at home and be broke constantly, I at least want my own room.” Everyone nodded in agreement. Even little Étienne.
“My darling, your mother's condition requires more space.” Rémy's voice was level, and obnoxiously reasonable. “This home is not made for her. She should not have to run into the walls simply to come out of her own room. And surely you cannot be so obstinate as to not see that there is not room for all of us in such a small space.”
Of course. What kind of heartless person would deny a crippled widow? Xiu was smart enough to see that this argument was lost. She sighed and mumbled, “Of course not. Sorry for waking you all up.”
"It's okay," they all mumbled back, and slowly drifted away to mind their own business. Everyone, that is, except Layla, who remained there in quiet smugness. As soon as the last person was in the house, Xiu turned to her in impotent fury. “I'm sure everyone's change of heart was all your doing," she choked out. "Mom, how could you?”
“How could I?” Layla repeated. “How could I? You dare criticize me? Over some old pots?”
“They belonged to my father! And you’re selling them because—“
“Because I wanted something better for my children and grandchildren than to live in this horrible cheap trailer while your father spent his money flying overseas to dig yet more old pots out of the ground? And somehow this offends you? Don’t be ridiculous. I did not leave behind everything I knew to come to this place so that my children could wear cast-off clothing and live like vagabonds!”
She looked with Xiu with a fierce gaze.
“Do you realize how much money your father has been hoarding all of these years, Xiu? All this time that we scrimped and sacrificed just to make ends meet, and there was money in this house all along? And for what? It did us no good, he would not even spend it.
"I still remember the time that I had to sell my own clothing just to feed you and your sister. Do you have the first idea how humiliating that is to do? Of course not, because you have always been provided for and never wanted for anything. Do not dare look down your nose at me now. All I am doing is making use of the property he left behind, the same way he did when he first came here.
"If you want to buy those horrible vases back from the consignment store, be my guest. Much good may they do you. Just keep them out of my sight.” And she wheeled away.
In the end, Xiu could only afford to redeem two of the antique vases. No one, probably not even Kim Chong himself, had known how much they were really worth, and within days of their arrival on the market, bidding wars erupted for several pieces. The consignment owner took pity on Xiu, though, and returned two of them for well under cost.
The money the family received for the other ten was more than enough to begin construction on the new house, which made most of the family very happy. Layla was insistent that the floor plan mirror Gaston's former residence exactly, right down to the wine cellar and six separate bedrooms.
"Would you stop pouting about it, already?" Mei asked her sister as they waited outside of the school building for Étienne to come out. "You act like it's some kind of personal insult directed at you that Mom wants a bigger place to live in. You're being petty."
Xiu didn't answer.
"Sis, seriously … you've got to let it go. Yes, Dad was frugal, we all know that—"
"Don't you mean cheap?" Xiu snarled.
Mei tactfully ignored the bait. "All we're saying is, you don't necessarily owe it to his memory to buy furniture second-hand and refuse to purchase any new clothes until you've worn your current ones to total rags. It's your life, live it how you choose."
"This is what I'm choosing," Xiu snapped.
"Then at least let Mom choose for herself too, without judging her so much."
"That's my problem," Xiu insisted. "She's not choosing for herself, she's choosing for all of us. She's going to be dead before she can even enjoy the house that she's spending all of this money to build!"
"Well, you have a point there, but still, think about it. Maybe she's more far-sighted than you give her credit for. That little trailer isn't going to hold together forever, you know. Did it occur to you that she's doing this for Étienne? And his kids? And his grandkids?"
Once again, Xiu didn't answer.
Construction on the new house continued.
The time soon came when the builders had to decide what to do about the current house. While everyone else gladly moved their belongings into the new lot, Xiu hung back to talk with the contractors. Yes, she knew that the old house was decrepit and old, and yes, she knew that it looked even more out of place now. But she had been born there, and she wanted to keep it if she could.
In the end, she compromised as usual. The builders located the original footprint of the two-room trailer and restored it to its original state. They moved the tiny trailer to the back of the lot, where it rested under the freshly-planted oak tree. Then they promptly bulldozed what remained behind. Layla sat and watched. Xiu turned away. The knot in her stomach was almost too much to stand.
She walked away from the half-finished chateau and went inside the dusty trailer. Its floors were warped now, its walls sagging inward. The door to her old nursery wouldn't close anymore. The remaining sunlight was weak through the single window.
She sat alone in her discarded childhood home, holding on to the two pots that she had been able to save, and cried until long after the sun set.