Almost everything was going well in the Zhang household. Mr. Zhang had recently secured tenure in the statistics department of a small rural college, and he was making enough money to begin sending their daughter, Mary, to a good local private school. It was a Catholic school, but you didn’t have to be Catholic to attend. They reassured Mary of this fact when she expressed anxiety about changing schools. She even shared a name with the most important woman in the Bible, they said—although Mr. and Mrs. Zhang had named her Mary, not out of any religious inclination, but rather because they were inspired by Mrs. Zhang’s sister, who lived in Virginia and had named her daughter Virginia, as well as another family friend in South Carolina, who had named their daughter Caroline.
The Zhangs resided in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and when Mary complained of having a plain and boring name amidst all of the Melindas and Melissas and Marissas of her third grade class, Mr. and Mrs. Zhang dutifully reminded her that she could have been born in Wisconsin, or Utah, or even Arkansas, which was not pronounced like “Are Kansas,” to Mrs. Zhang’s extreme disbelief. The Zhangs felt that they had a foolproof baby naming method on their hands. The slippery awkwardness of “Wisconsin” could actually be shortened to “Winnie,” Pennsylvania to “Penny,” and “Florida” didn’t sound all too bad on its own.
Earlier in the year, the Zhangs had briefly entertained ideas for names of their second child. These ideas had quickly been dropped—not, of course, because they had never planned to move states in the first place. The tender and more painful issue was that the second child had never come. After Mrs. Zhang had suffered a miscarriage at the end of summer, she had taken time off from her administrative job in order to recover. Still, for months, she was unable to feel entirely at home in her body. Standing naked in the bathroom after a shower, Mrs. Zhang’s feet looked alien and disconnected from the rest of her. She struggled to recognize her toes as her own. It felt like she had been abandoned, left alone to carry her brain around in an empty and unusable sack of flesh, even though her husband still stroked her hair in bed and her daughter was still young enough to reach for her hand in public.
Mrs. Zhang liked to think that her time off would help her focus on Mary. She was happy that Mary had new educational opportunities. Both Mr. and Mrs. Zhang felt that the emphasis Catholics put on education and discipline, with all those Franciscan and Jesuit universities and whatnot, aligned with their Chinese principles. They liked the look of the old metal chairs in each classroom. They liked the orderly lines in which the students traveled, and the grim focus of the third grade teacher, Sister Ann. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Zhang quite understood the religious aspect, but they both agreed that it would be useful cultural exposure for Mary. It was not that they were a family of atheists, they explained to her, but rather that they had grown up in China at a time when religion was forbidden. Consequently, it had never occurred to them to believe in a god. It was an opportunity for her to learn about things they had never known.
Mrs. Zhang repeated this spiel as she delivered Mary to her first day at the new school. She watched from the back of the gymnasium as the students stood for Morning Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. “Forgive us our trespasses,” they said, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” They spoke in loose unison and took breaths at the same time. Mrs. Zhang’s pulse accelerated, and she craned her neck to search for Mary’s double braids. The Sisters had assured Mr. and Mrs. Zhang that non-Catholics would be welcome, but nobody in the Zhang family had ever heard of those prayers before. The prayers gave Mrs. Zhang the creeps. All of the s’s in “trespasses” slid together, like the hissing of a snake. Did the children at the school even understand how solemn they sounded?
The strange words and the large painting of the Virgin Mary in the entranceway of the school stuck rather unpleasantly to Mrs. Zhang’s mind, like a hair in her mouth. In the following days, she dropped Mary off in the parking lot and then drove quickly away from the school, and its adjacent Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart Church. Although Mrs. Zhang had once asked Mary what her day at school had been like every single day, she began avoiding her daughter in the afternoons. She took up crocheting as an excuse to watch more television. She selected colorful discount yarns from the craft store and then spent hours in front of game shows and house hunter programs, weaving scarves with intricate Fair Isle designs. She knit small mittens for Mary, and big ones for her husband, the kind you could flip up and fasten with a button so that you could use your fingers. It was only September, and the air was still warm, but the living room couch grew crowded with winter goods.
Mr. Zhang sat down with Mary every night after dinner to help her memorize her prayers. They started with Grace Before Meals, because it was the shortest, and then they did the Hail Mary and the Our Father. When Mary said that most of the kids in her class didn’t know the Nicene Creed, Mr. Zhang insisted that she memorize it anyway. Catholicism delighted Mr. Zhang. He looked over Mary’s religion class homework with gleeful disbelief, and asked Mary to tell him about all of the gospels and homilies she heard at school Mass.
“This is great stuff, Mary,” Mr. Zhang would say, while his wife washed the dishes. “It’s absolutely foundational to understanding the West. And while I don’t believe any of it, I do think it is a good way to live in the world. If you are a bad person, then bad things will happen to you. But if you are a good person, then God will reward you with the things that you pray for. If you pray really hard every day for your mom and dad, then maybe one day you will have a little brother! Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Mrs. Zhang scrubbed a saucepan and listened over the sound of the running water. They were still trying to conceive a second child. Were they unsuccessful because Mrs. Zhang was a bad person who had not prayed to become pregnant? A handful of sins sprung to Mrs. Zhang’s mind like weeds after rain. She had once ignored her daughter’s request for an afternoon snack. She did not volunteer to run events or donate baked goods at Mary’s school. She did not go to work. How could she bring another child into the world when she hardly wanted to take care of herself? She climbed out of bed every day out of habit, the action weighed down with the agonizing tedium of a rush-hour traffic jam.
“I don’t like hearing you joke about religion with Mary,” she said to her husband that night, in the quiet moment before he switched off the light and got into bed. “You might not take any of it seriously, but we still need to be respectful of her classmates that do believe.”
“What jokes?” asked Mr. Zhang, jokingly. “Mary’s learning about things we could never have imagined!”
His words did nothing to allay her discomfort, but she turned toward him when he crawled into bed and placed his hand on her hip. Several evenings later, Mrs. Zhang saw Mary on her knees, praying fervently beside her bed. It looked like a scene out of a children’s book. The light from Mary’s reading lamp pooled into a spotlight, highlighting her small clasped hands and casting a halo about her hair, which was wet from her nightly shower.
The next day, she said Grace before dinner, requesting that Mr. and Mrs. Zhang silently bow their heads in reverence. After they ate, Mr. Zhang helped Grace review her worksheet from religion class, in which she had matched characters and parables to their respective books of the Bible.
“Can we name my little brother ‘Isaac’?” asked Mary.
“What about ‘Adam’ or ‘Joseph’?” said Mr. Zhang, joking again.
“I like ‘David,’ too,” said Mary. “I’ve been praying a lot every day.”
Mrs. Zhang listened from the sink as she scrubbed the pots clean. She bit her lip. Imagining a tiny ball of life somersaulting inside of her, she yearned for its reality.
Yet, she did not long for the baby because Mary wanted a brother, or because her husband wanted a son. Rather, Mrs. Zhang just wanted somebody that belonged entirely to herself. She didn’t care if it was a girl or a boy. She wanted something inside of her, entirely dependent on her for its own existence, completely secure from the rest of the world. Everything I eat, you eat, she said to her imaginary baby.
Everything I breathe, you breathe, and everywhere I am, you are with me. She was becoming selfish.
Mrs. Zhang finished washing the dishes and informed the rest of her family that she needed to pick up more yarn from the craft store. Mary and her father were busy reading together, so they did not mind. Mrs. Zhang could not help but feel that they ought to have protested her departure more. As she started the car and flicked on the headlights, it occurred to her that she had not left the house after dark in a very long time. She felt dizzy and light, like all of her long hair had been cut off. The roads were nearly empty, and she found herself driving the usual route, unable to remember if she had actually stopped at the red lights or not.
Mrs. Zhang already knew what color she needed to buy at the craft store, but she took her time fingering each of the yarns and comparing some shades of pale blue to other, cheaper shades of pale blue. She was the only customer. When the overhead announced that the store was closing in twenty minutes, Mrs. Zhang quickly went to the front to pay. She felt a dense, animalistic panic that the fluorescent lights would flip off without warning, that the automatic sliding doors would clamp shut, and that she would be trapped in a dark craft store overnight, the walls of woolly fibers closing in around her.
On the way home, Mrs. Zhang passed Mary’s school and turned into the parking lot of the Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart Church. The parking lot was bleak and empty, the colors of the autumn trees around the church building muted in the dark. Someone had once told Mrs. Zhang that churches left their doors unlocked at all times to welcome those in need, but she found the idea impractical and unlikely. Anyway, she did not want to make appeals to shut doors. She parked the car and switched off the headlights. Mrs. Zhang did not expect any flames or beams of light, but she listened carefully for some kind of tiny alteration within her, like a small corner folded over on a sheet of paper that laid flat before. She willed that her listening would count as an act of faith, even if her faith was only her imagination. If a new and beautiful baby manifested in her future, she thought to herself, the truth and reality of this current moment would not matter to her either way.
Alexandra Ye is from Great Mills, Maryland. She is a senior who studies English literature and Chinese at Swarthmore College.